The Waze of Israelis: Four National Traits That Lead to Cutting-edge Apps

Israelis may not be easy to cope with on a daily basis, but some of their less-endearing qualities contribute to creating killer apps.

Allison Kaplan Sommer
Allison Kaplan Sommer
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There’s a classic and well-worn dirty joke that is popular among Israelis, particularly women, that I’ll try my best to tell as tastefully as possible.

“Why do Israeli men climax so quickly?"

"Because they are in a hurry to run and tell their friends.”

I know. I try not to use off-color humor to illustrate a point unless I think it is absolutely necessary. But this joke encompasses a host of reasons that Israelis have taken to the development of cell-phone applications like a duck to water, culminating, of course, in the tremendous success of Waze and its billion-dollar acquisition by Google, the big business deal everyone can’t stop talking about.

Those of us who live and work among Israelis have a close familiarity with national traits that are, to be perfectly honest, not always easy to cope with on a daily basis. But it must be acknowledged that these qualities, while not those most desirable at a cocktail party, are uniquely suited for the digital age, and particularly when it comes to the now-exploding world of social media and mobile phone applications. They are a significant part of the reason why Waze is only one of many innovations that already have come out of Israel, and will in the future as well.

1. Israelis are hyper-social - both off and on-line  

Or, to put it less delicately - Israelis can be nosy, gossipy, in everyone else’s business and willing to share the details of their own experiences as soon as they happen (reference the dirty joke above.). Israelis have always wanted to know what is going on with everyone all the time - it is only the tools they use for doing so that have drastically improved. It used to be gossip at the local cafe and vegetable store, on porches or in kibbutz dining halls - Israelis have always wanted to “share” the latest, even before doing so meant uploading something on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

So it is little wonder that Israel leads the world in smartphone usage. A recent survey showed that 93 percent of Israeli smartphone owners use their phone to surf the Web, as opposed to 83 percent in Britain, France and the United States. Fifty percent of Israelis will use their phone at social gatherings, 54 percent in coffee shops, and majorities of those surveyed said they were on their phone at home, work, walking down the street and while watching TV.

Basically, we’re talking about a nation of mobile phone and social media addicts. This high rate of usage means that pioneering apps like Waze which involve crowd-sourcing is incredibly easy, since when you are online in Israel, you are always in a crowd.

2. Israelis are extremely impatient

Anyone who has experienced waiting in line in Israel can testify to the above. Israelis hate to wait for anything. Waze took off locally because so many people were eager to avoid traffic jams. Similar Israeli-developed apps aimed at saving time are right in line behind Waze, poised for similar international success - GetTaxi, already spreading like wildfire worldwide, for those who don’t want to have to wait for a dispatcher to send them a cab, can order it on the phone. Parko, promises to crowdsource parking - cleverly connecting people who want to turn their unused city parking space into a source of income, and those driving into the city who are looking for a convenient place to park at a reasonable price.  

3. Israelis aren’t hung up on privacy

I wrote in the wake of the Prism scandal about how, when living in Israel, one takes it for granted that one’s car and handbag will be searched when doing simple everyday tasks like going into a shopping mall or taking in a movie, and that the government is keeping a fairly close eye on anyone who raises any kind of security threat. To use an app like Waze - or, for that matter to "check in" on Facebook or Foursquare, can’t happen if you don’t want anyone to know where you are - you are letting a company trace your movements. Why is Waze so valuable to Google? Because it can geographically target so many consumers at any given moment and market to them. You can get a coupon for the gas station you are approaching even before you get there. A little creepy? Yes. But what a bargain!

I hesitate to say this for fear of awakening anti-Semitic stereotypes, but loving a bargain is also a dominant national trait. Information that is considered private in some societies – the cost of one’s house, car, clothes are shared freely among family, friends and total strangers, along with bragging rights for the person who found the best goods at the cheapest price. So trading private information online in exchange for a nice discount? Most Israelis wouldn’t hesitate.  

4. Israelis always think they know how to do things better than anyone else

Call it helpful generosity, a massive superiority complex, or just a general desire to butt in - Israelis think they know how to do everything better and are eager to let you know about it and demonstrate if necessary.

Ever pushed a stroller in Israel? You’ll be bombarded with advice - the baby is dressed too warmly, not warmly enough, how are you feeding them, whether or not they should be home asleep at that hour. For new parents, it’s a country full of interfering yentas. On the other hand, if you have to collapse in the street, Israel is the place to be. Everyone will race around and find you help. This makes for fertile ground when it comes to apps that depend on crowdsourcing because in online Israel, the crowd isn’t just online, they want to be involved. So not only will they log into Waze to find out that there is a traffic jam, if they have managed to find a clever way to avoid that traffic jam, they are going to only be too happy to share it on social media and help others avoid the pile-up.

After all, what’s the point of being more clever than anyone else, if you can’t run and tell your friends?

Israelis may be pushy, but it helps them clinch billion-dollar exits.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum