Friday, July 28, 2006

Act Locally

I'm never on top of the latest breaking news, but at least a few of you also didn't know about this yet, so I figured I'd pass it on.

Google has released an updated version of its Google Maps application for mobile phones. If you haven't seen the previous version, you're in for a treat. Google has done a phenomenal job of converting its excellent mapping software to the mobile phone. They got everything right: it's feature-rich with items taken from the web version (including searching, getting driving directions, zooms, satellite imagery), and is well adapted to the constraints of a mobile device (easy and clear step-by-step driving directions, jumping between search results on the small screen). The number of cool use cases is pretty impressive. I open the phone, and it remembers where I was using it last, bringing up the Los Gatos area map. I type in "burger" to search and get back a bunch of results. I find Main Street Burger, and then press the "Call" button and instantly initiate a phone call to them.

I've been geeking out on this application for a while now; the new version adds even more to amaze. The single coolest addition is real-time traffic information. Just press # on your keypad, and your local highways receive another overlay: green for running on time, yellow for running slow, and red for backed up. Even more amazing, this is integrated into the routing algorithm: your driving directions now include up-to-the-minute traffic estimates.

So that's incredibly cool, although it isn't something I'll use that often (seeing as how I rarely drive to work and, when I do, it's almost always a smooth commute). Traffic info has a high wow factor, but I'll get the most mileage out of an improved favorites feature: the previous version had the standard "recent searches", which was nice, but this one lets you bookmark and name common addresses. Then, it's just 1 touch to center on that bookmark. It's not just locations, though: you can also bookmark routes! I could see myself, for example, bookmarking the route from home to SFO, then checking it to see whether I'm better off going up on 280 or 101 on a given day.

Anyhoo, cool stuff. It's available on Sprint and Cingular; if you have a data plan, it's totally free to download and use.

Some inside-the-beltway-commentary: obviously I'm a BREW guy, do or die, but I'll really miss things like this when I switch over to Verizon. The carriers who don't offer this generally have one of two reasons: either their technology doesn't support it (that is, they use BREW phones instead of J2ME), or their network doesn't support it (that is, T-Mobile has awful awful data channels).

The argument about technology not supporting it is a bit facetious, though. Yes, Verizon sells BREW phones, but the reason why is because they want to have total control over the programs run on their phones. This all goes down to the bottom line: Verizon would rather sell 1000 copies of Verizon Navigator for a monthly fee than have 1000000 copies of Google Maps running for free. I shouldn't complain, since that business model supports my salary, but it can feel frustrating to operate in a nickel and dime economy. Sprint takes the broader view, hoping that people will like the free stuff so much that they'll shell out $15 a month for the data plans. (And some people will pay even more for the premium games and applications.) Time will tell which strategy ultimately wins out. Personally, I'd be delighted to see a future world where free J2ME programs run on the BREW platform. The technology is already there to do it; it's a question of courage on Verizon's part, and I think it would be a shrewd move as well. Few people who haven't previously experienced mobile applications will shell out money for them; free high-quality applications like Google Maps are a great way to get people used to using their phones like computers, and once they make that transition, far more of them will convert to data users who want Verizon's BREW content.

And what does Google get out of all this? First off, remember that Google has never been reluctant to offer free services while experimenting with new products and technology. In the long run, it will probably support this through advertising. It'll be interesting to see how that happens - obviously, you won't have as much screen space to support ads as you do in a web browser, but then again this could be a place where Google's text-only ads really shine. I can imagine me typing in "burger", and along with my results having a tiny crawl at the bottom calling out a local burger restaurant I haven't been to yet. It's a brave new world out there.

Download the application by opening your phone's web browser and going to If you'd like, you can take a tour of the application online - keep in mind, the interface is much nicer in the palm of your hand than the end of a mouse.

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