Waze Probably Won’t Exist in Three Years

Waze logoIs Waze like YouTube or like Aardvark? My guess is that it’s more Aardvark than YouTube and that it won’t be around three years from now.

Waze could survive but that survival will depend on whether the Waze community keeps growing and whether Waze can make money. At a minimum Waze will help enrich Google Maps with social and traffic data and, in a best case scenario, Waze may become something of a map-laboratory for Google.

Make no mistake, however, Google primarily bought Waze to keep it away from others and to keep it from eventually growing into some sort of potential threat itself.

If I were Waze CEO Noam Bardin (and his board) I would have taken the money, reported to be more than $1 billion. But there should be no illusion that Google cares about nurturing the app. If Waze goes on to grow and succeed beyond expectations it may live on.

Aardvark was a very provocative and potentially promising Q&A startup that pre-dated Quora and could have been developed in very interesting ways that ultimately benefited Google. But after cashing out my suspicion is that the founders were less motivated and Google had bigger (social) ambitions. Aardvark was shuttered as a non-core project.

In the case of Waze, my guess is that Bardin himself will probably be gone in two years — the standard contractual period that key employees often stick around after an acquisition. Emotionally he will probably disengage much sooner than that.

In a blog post this morning formally announcing the acquisition, Google’s Brian McClendon said: “The Waze product development team will remain in Israel and operate separately for now.” For now means not indefinitely.

Bardin in his parallel post said:

Why not stay completely independent? We asked ourselves: “Will Waze still be a fun project to participate in, and a fun place to work, as a stand-alone public company?” Choosing the path of an IPO often shifts attention to bankers, lawyers and the happiness of Wall Street, and we decided we’d rather spend our time with you, the Waze community. Google is committed to help us achieve our common goal and provide us with the independence and resources we need to succeed. We evaluated many options and believe Google is the best partner for Waze, our map editors, area managers, champs and nearly 50 million Wazers globally.

An IPO would have been very challenging for Waze to pull off. And generating sufficient revenue and ongoing growth to please investors as a stand-alone company, even with 50 million users globally, would have been even tougher. Again, were I in Bardin’s billion dollar shoes I would have taken the money. I don’t blame him. Congratulations.

But there’s also something depressing and cynical about it all. Waze brought together a community of users whose efforts built a unique capability and approach to mapping. When Google eventually merges Waze into Maps or shutters it entirely those users will have hit a dead end.

It’s a common startup-gets-bought story: big company has high hopes and pledges ongoing commitment, but shutters product or asset not long after purchase. Think about Cisco and the Flip camera or HP and WebOS. There are many more such examples.

Maybe I’ll be proven wrong and Waze will grow and thrive as YouTube has, semi-autonomously from Google. I’d be very surprised. But maybe.

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