Nokia’s Trapster Could Have Been Waze

Ludovic Privat

Nokia’s Trapster Could Have Been Waze
Following the $966 million acquisition of Israeli start-up Waze by Google a few weeks ago, it is interesting to compare its fate with Trapster, another start-up app that was quite similar, pioneered the community-based driving app and was acquired by digital map vendor NAVTEQ.

Launched in 2008 Trapster, offered an app centered around a community reporting speedtraps locations, red light cameras, police controls and other types of hazards on the road.

Even if turn-by-turn navigation was not in Trapster and real-time traffic came at a later stage, both apps shared a deep sense of community. In addition, while real-time traffic is the number one reason why using Waze, warnings about police presence comes as a good second.

Looking at the timeline waze actually started to thrive when Trapster started to decline, which makes the comparison even more interesting.

Pioneering driver’s community
As an app for Symbian, Blackberry, J2ME and Windows Mobile, Trapster was available even before the iPhone had a SDK and an app store. But eventually the iPhone app store distribution and later on Android Market made its success. For almost two years (2008-2010) the app was head to head with MapQuest leading the navigation section of the iTunes U.S. store.

Pushed by viral growth and the public relation know-how of its founder Pete Tenereillo, the app reached between 15,000 to 50,000 daily downloads between 2008 and 2010. The app enjoyed peaks up to 400,000 unique users per week, while the penetration of smartphone was still relatively small.

At the end of 2010 the count of app downloads was ticking 10 million with 2 to 2.5 million monthly users of the app.

End of 2010 Trapster unfortunately went out of cash and existing investors were not willing to open up their wallet again for an app that was free and not even trying to make money from advertising.

NAVTEQ, already owned by Nokia, was enduring at that time a fierce competion from Google Maps and as a consequence in search of ways to crowdsource data from consumers. NAVTEQ management was also looking at demonstrating its independance from Nokia, so making their own acquisitions was in line with that.

Trapster was therefore looking like a good fit for NAVTEQ which sealed the deam in December 2010. Although the financial details of the acquisition were not made public, NAVTEQ payed less than $10 million for this acquisition.

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Trapster ranking - source Appannie.com 2009 to 2012
Trapster ranking - source Appannie.com 2009 to 2012
B2B vs B2C
The only problem was that running a consumer app start-up is very different from a B2B content company such as NAVTEQ.

Because NAVTEQ was owned but still Independent from Nokia, the overseeing of the start-up activity was not given to Nokia’s consumer LBS software team in Berlin but stayed in the hands of NAVTEQ’s Chicago-based executives.

As we wrote (back in December 2010): “In the one hand we have a small start-up ran by a serial entrepreneur off a Californian beach and in the other hand we have a large, Chicago-based, dark-suit-and-tie style corporation; an interesting mix that we will follow closely.“ (read details here).

Further to that Trapster was extensively using Google Maps in its app. Riding out of Google Maps was made a key priority in software development by NAVTEQ instead of releasing regular software updates which were an important part of Trapster strategy to boost its ranking in the app stores.

Traspter iPhone ranking 2012 onward - Source: Appannie.com
Traspter iPhone ranking 2012 onward - Source: Appannie.com
DUI checkpoints
Then comes also the problem with DUI (Driving Under Influence) checkpoints. A very well used feature of Trapster was indeed alerts about these police checkpoints. But 4 US Senator called for the ban of such apps in public letters to Blackberry, Apple and Google in March 2011 (read here2910) specifically mentioning Trapster and another app.

Being mentioned by the Senators actually gave an additional public relations boost to the app and drove even more downloads by fear the app would be removed from the app stores.

While Blackberry banned the app pretty fast, Apple actually did not really force developers to remove the DUI locator feature (there are still many iOS apps that straightforwardly warns of DUI Checkpoints today), but only limited “legal“ DUI checkpoints to those already publicly announced by local law enforcement agencies.

But to stay on the safe side NAVTEQ (probably pushed by some over zealous corporate lawyers) completely removed this consumer-appealing feature from the Trapster app, definitely losing some hardcore users in that move.

Despite that, at the product level NAVTEQ brought also some good to Trapster. Using their commercial content it enabled two features that were previously missing: speed limits and real-time traffic with color-coded lines overlayed on roads.

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The biggest problem was that NAVTEQ did not keep up with regular updates (which were almost monthly before the acquisition), many of those were quickly introducing iOS updates - Trapster was among the first developers to introduce background location or notifications.

There was also a lack marketing and PR activities - glued by the NAVTEQ corporate machine.

All of that made the app to dramatically fall off the top iTunes ranks within 6 months of the acquisition.

Today Trapster claims 19 million users but - if they exist - they are unfortunately not many to be seen on the map during rush hours in large U.S. cities - and elsewhere.


Missing the commuting app opportunity
Compared to other navigation apps, Waze and Trapster are essentially tools for commuters, made for a daily usage, always-on, as opposed to a few times a month for A-to-B GPS navigation apps. They also are community-based which strongly reinforces the user’s engagement.

The daily relevance and community aspect is the very reason why Google paid $966 million for Waze.

With Trapster Nokia owned a cross-platform mobile asset that had the opportunity to lead the emerging category of commuting apps. However, Nokia executives completely failed to see the potential at hand with the acquisition of Trapster.

While HERE has a hard time to exist as a consumer brand beyond Nokia devices today; Trapster - if it had been correctly nurtured since its acquisition - could have been what Waze is becoming for Google.