Losing its way: Why Google would be stupid to let Facebook acquire Waze

According to a number of reports in the Israeli media, Facebook (s fb) is in advanced talks with Waze — a mobile mapping and traffic-information service based in Israel — about acquiring the company for as much as $1 billion. This is not the first time Waze has been the subject of acquisition rumors: Apple (s aapl) was reported to be in talks with the company in January, although that report was later debunked. But while Apple could definitely benefit from buying Waze, the one who needs it most is Google (s goog).

For those who may not have used it, Waze — which won our Launchpad event at Mobilize in 2009 — provides real-time information about everything from road closures and accidents to traffic backups and police speed-traps. The information is superimposed on a scrollable map, and there are also a number of social features built in, which allow users to see and share information, including messages, with other drivers. Waze even provides gas-price data.


Facebook wants to acquire mobile users

If Facebook does acquire Waze for $1 billion, as reported by Israeli media outlets like Calcalist and Ynet, it would be one of the biggest acquisitions the social network has ever made, rivalling the purchase of mobile photo-sharing service Instagram (which signed a deal for $1 billion but actually wound up being acquired for $750 million due to a drop in Facebook’s share price). And the rationale for the deal would be much the same as it was for Instagram — namely, acquiring and holding onto mobile users.

As my colleague Erica Ogg explained when the Apple rumors were floated earlier this year, Apple would also make a good fit for Waze, in part because the company’s mapping app is seen by many as an also-ran to Google’s more feature-rich service — which is why there was such an outcry last year when Apple suddenly cut off Google and switched iOS users to its own maps.

But while Apple would be a good fit, and Facebook has its own reasons for wanting a service like Waze, I think Google would be the real loser if it went to either of these companies, for the simple reason that Google Maps is a big part of the company’s mobile appeal — at least for me, and I would suspect for many others. My reliance on Google Maps was one of the reasons why Apple’s move irritated me and helped push me towards the Android platform, and Waze is good enough that it could help either Apple or Facebook leap-frog Google.


Google has the most to lose

I’ll admit that I was somewhat skeptical about the value of Waze until I tried using it on a long drive from Florida to Toronto earlier this year. I had looked at the service a few times, but it didn’t have a lot of data or users in Canada (it now has about 45 million users worldwide) and I didn’t see the appeal of the social elements. But when I started using it during this long drive, its utility quickly became obvious — and I stopped using Google Maps altogether.

I’m not yet sold on the ability to connect with other users through the app (unless they are friends already, which would make sense if you were on a trip together), but being able to see at a glance where there is a traffic jam — and even what speed people are going who are stuck in it — and where there’s a speed trap or a police car on the roadside was hugely useful. The gas price data also came in handy more than once.

Google Maps also has traffic data, and it is also based on real-time information, which comes from other users of the service who have their GPS location turned on. It is pretty accurate — but I don’t find it nearly as useful as Waze. I didn’t think enough people would take the time to enter information about things like traffic or speed traps into Waze to make it useful, but I was wrong. And Google doesn’t seem to have any plans to try and duplicate that, since it is more focused on automating that whole process, in typical Google fashion.

There’s no sign that Google has shown an interest in acquiring Waze, but I think the company would be stupid not to at least consider trumping Facebook’s offer. It could wind up losing its way, and a bunch of mobile users to boot.

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr user Dunechaser and Waze