October 29, 2009

Why Google Maps Navigation Won't Kill Standalone GPS

Greetings. There's a lot of excitement over Google's announcing that mobile Google Maps will be enhanced (at least for Android 2.0) with a true spoken turn-by-turn navigation system.

It reportedly will be chock full of nifty features, such as satellite image and Street View overlays, live traffic feeds and other goodies.

I won't even bother digging out all the links where I've spoken admiringly of Android, praised Google Maps, and even speculated on issues surrounding turn-by-turn navigation for Android. I'm looking forward to playing with Google Maps Navigation as soon as possible.

On the other hand, the breathless assertions from some observers that this development will destroy the standalone GPS industry seem exceedingly overblown. There are several reasons why.

First, the Cloud. The Cloud is both a strength and a weakness for Google Maps. If you're in a strong signal area, and have an unlimited data plan, loading maps from Google Servers can be entirely practical -- though the speed of some current phones can make this a bit sluggish even under good signal 3G conditions.

But users of other "data connection required" cell phone GPS services know, if you don't have a signal (or you have a poor signal) and you don't already have the needed mapping data cached on your phone -- well, you're out of luck. No signal, no maps.

This is problem amenable to technical solutions, but there can be interesting policy and licensing issues. Google could cache significant portions of planned routes, or even entire routes, on phones so that loss of signal would not cause a sudden lack of mapping data. Taking this idea even further, entire cities, states, or even countries could be cached in advance.

This latter concept is essentially the technique used by the $30 CoPilot Live Android application, which allows the user to download in advance essentially any part of the desired region (e.g. the U.S.) that they wish, and keep it resident on their phone. The amount of data involved is relatively reasonable, especially for individual cities and states. CoPilot then provides various live services to enhance that stored data.

CoPilot displays aren't likely going to be able to match the sheer classiness of Street View overlays anytime soon -- but knowing that I always have the entire street mapping database for the state of California on my phone, even if I'm out of cell range, is a significant comfort. Here in the traditional canyons and urban canyons around L.A., there tends to be an inverse relationship between cell signal availability and the degree to which I find myself disoriented in an unfamiliar location.

Google presumably could, if they wished, allow for a very similar degree of advance map downloading so that dependence on the Google Cloud in real time would be reduced or eliminated. But would they? I don't know. I can think of relevant issues both pro and con.

Here's another reason why traditional GPS isn't going away anytime soon -- it seems unlikely that most drivers who have become used to large in-dash navigation systems will want to switch to using a small cell phone display while driving. Though smartphone displays are certainly getting larger, there's going to be a limit beyond which further size increases will be impractical for a "pocket-size" device. And the smaller the display when driving, the bigger the distraction risk would seem to be as drivers try to focus on the display. In fact, a sort of "reverse flow" could be possible. Users whose first GPS navigation experience is on cell phones may be sufficiently smitten with GPS that they could be more likely to order more traditional large screen in-dash navigation systems (many of which now also include various "live" data sources) with their next vehicle purchase.

Of course, to the extent that drivers depend mostly on GPS voice directions and don't have to look at the displays, the size of the displays is of less importance. And it seems reasonable to assume that Android-based in-dash navigation units will appear -- an especially likely scenario given the insane price demanded for annual data updates to many in-dash navigation systems. Also, drivers without in-dash navigation systems at all (the 4-wheeled vehicle I drive seems almost old enough to require a starter hand crank) may clearly find simply plopping their Android phone down in a car mount (as I do) to be a practical alternative.

The next issue may be the toughest nut to crack. Those of us in the tech realm tend to live in an environment where it's easy to forget that not everyone in the world uses smartphones and has unlimited data plans. In fact, vast numbers of persons have no data plans at all, and even if the carriers gave away data for free, many people would be unlikely to use advanced phone features.

In fact, there's a very significant segment of the cell phone industry concentrating on what we'd consider to be low-end phones, free of all advanced features and frills, completely oriented toward basic voice communications. Yet users who tend to choose such devices may also want to avail themselves of GPS navigation, while still likely wanting to keep their phones small and simple as well.

Such persons -- and I believe they represent a significant and in some age ranges a growing segment of the population -- would seem much more likely to go out and buy a under-$100 standalone car GPS unit to clip on their sun visor, regardless of available phone features. Inexpensive Android-based "GPS-only" devices are also presumably possible, but the key point in this regard is that many persons are looking for basic GPS devices that do not depend on outside services, and this situation is unlikely to dramatically change anytime very soon.

The arrival of Google Maps Navigation for Android is a development many of us have been waiting for, and is a feature that I personally am very much looking forward to seeing in action on my own Android phone. Google Maps Navigation will be immensely useful to large numbers of persons. But the observers who seem to already be engraving tombstones for the traditional GPS navigation companies are -- in my opinion -- rather seriously jumping the gun.


Posted by Lauren at October 29, 2009 06:57 PM | Permalink
Twitter: @laurenweinstein
Google+: Lauren Weinstein