For now, the mobile-phone version of Google Maps is fine if you’re on foot, but not if you’re behind the wheel
The Good: Good enough for helping you get around while walking or for checking traffic conditions; free
The Bad: Not accurate enough for turn-by-turn directions while driving
The Bottom Line: A solid application for pedestrians, and you can’t beat free
After nearly a decade of preaching the benefits of personal navigation devices to a largely dismissive batch of friends and family, I feel sort of funny with what I’m about to say: For more simple needs at least, these devices are becoming irrelevant.
I’ve come to this conclusion after trying out the mobile-phone version of Google Maps on my Research In Motion (RIMM) BlackBerry Pearl 8130. Google (GOOG) launched the second version of the mobile application right before the holidays. The first one impressed many tech pundits early on when it made its debut on Apple’s (AAPL) iPhone last June, bringing not only maps but satellite imagery to a portable device.
The Eiffel Tower and the Washington Monument on the iPhone’s screen were certainly eyepoppers, but of limited use, I thought. Like most cell phones, the iPhone has no GPS satellite receiver inside, and so Google Maps couldn’t really tell you where you were. As such, the application was of limited use to help you navigate where you want to go.
This latest version of Google Maps for mobile contains a feature called My Location. That label oversells it a bit: It’s close, but not precise. Without access to GPS satellites, it relies on the next best thing to calculate your location: the towers in the cell-phone network. It does this by grabbing the unique identifying information associated with the towers closest to you to make a pretty good guess of where you are in the space between those towers. Once you have your starting location, you have enough to go on to navigate to your destination.
Just a Bit Off
The results surprised me. I launched the application on my BlackBerry while sitting at my desk at BusinessWeek headquarters in Manhattan, bordered by 49th Street to the north, 48th to the south, Sixth Avenue to the east, and Seventh Avenue to the west. Google Maps showed my location as being on 47th Street, closer to Seventh Avenue than I was, yet really only a block off. Another time, from my home on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, Google’s guess at my location was off by just a bit more than a city block. Both were close, but neither was GPS-accurate. And yet, for the purposes of finding the way to a nearby location, the lack of precision was irrelevant.
Armed with this close-enough starting point, I asked the program to provide me with directions to some local addresses, one of which happened to be for Google’s New York office. The directions were accurate enough that if I were unfamiliar with Manhattan or unable to hail a cab, I could have walked to Google’s doorstep with little trouble. I didn’t, but then I did use the program to walk to some other locations nearby.
This pedestrian navigation is the sort of thing for which the wireless phone is supposedly ideal. Most people always carry their phones, which can always access the Internet by way of the cellular network, and more handsets are likely to sport brightly colored screens good for rendering detailed maps.
Some years back, GPS device maker Garmin (GRMN) experimented with combining its navigation expertise with phones. Then it switched to PDAs running the Palm OS (PALM) and Microsoft’s (MSFT) Windows Mobile before finally abandoning the effort to focus mostly on in-car systems. But the navigation business is shifting to the phone quickly. Location-aware services, including navigation, are turning out to be popular with cell users (BusinessWeek.com, 11/26/07) and accounted for more than half of the revenue generated for downloadable phone applications during the third quarter of 2007, according to Nielsen Mobile. And as of last year, more than 160 million wireless phones were equipped with GPS chips, estimates market research firm iSuppli. That’s not many when you consider that more than a billion phones were sold last year, but the technology is clearly becoming more commonplace.
The Google application works on several types of phones including any BlackBerry with a color screen, most Windows Mobile devices, several that run on the Symbian operating system, and some phones from Sony Ericsson and Motorola (MOT). While I’d use it for basic navigation on foot, I don’t think I’d rely on it for turn-by-turn directions in my car. I’d rather use either a traditional navigation system on my dashboard or a GPS-based phone application such as VZNavigator on Verizon Wireless phones or TeleNav (BusinessWeek.com, 10/10/07) on Sprint (S) and AT&T (T) handsets. The wireless service providers offer monthly subscriptions for unlimited use of these services and pay-as-you-go plans for occasional use.
The next step for Google will undoubtedly be a mobile map application that takes full advantage of the GPS chips that will in time be embedded in all wireless phones. GPS signals are already free, and Google has a history of giving away useful tools without charge. When that happens, will anyone need anything more than their cell phone and Google Maps to keep from getting lost? For that reason, don’t expect wireless service providers to allow such an application to work on all their phones, at least not right away. Still, I look forward to Google Maps for mobile 3.0. Wireless service providers and GPS device makers probably don’t.
Hesseldahl is a reporter for BusinessWeek.com