Recently I have been traveling quite a lot, mostly to locations where I haven’t been before. Since I use a BlackBerry Curve with GPS and Google Maps Mobile (GMM) as my main mobile phone, I thought that my mobile companion can definitely help me answer a lot of questions while on the road. I was wrong.
Let’s recap a few situations:
I was in the city center of Brussels and wondering where I could find something to eat. Unfortunately most of the shops were already closed and I didn’t want to go to a restaurant. So I started Google Maps, searched for “McDonalds” and “Subways” and basically the results where mediocre: I found out where the McDonalds Headquarter is in Belgium (some 20 km outside Brussels), I guess there might be a Subway’s restaurant but it was out of walking distance and I was not willing to study public transportation – so at the end I asked around for the next train station and found a small shop there.
Similar situations happened in Milan and Istanbul – even in Palo Alto, the heart of Silicon Valley, I was trying to use Google Maps Mobile to help me find a dedicated Puma Store. When I finally arrived at the mall it was merely a little Puma shop with a few of the most common shoes – not exactly what I have been looking for (I was looking for the Puma Black Label series of shoes….but that’s a different story).
Overall my impression was that there is a huge potential for Google Maps Mobile and location based services when you are traveling or in locations that you don’t know that well. The only problem: Google Maps Mobile is simply not ready for primetime yet.
I have summarized the areas for improvement in the list and I am the first to upgrade when Google implements a few of these requests:
- Include a pedestrian mode
Not everyone is using GPS in a car – I guess that most users of Google Maps Mobile use it for navigation outside their car when they are walking or cycling. If you need GPS navigation regularly in a car I suppose most people would buy a dedicated GPS car navigation system. I want to have the ability to switch to a “pedestrian mode” where the routing is based on each “walkable” street, not just on “drivable” streets as in a car mode. Help me find the shortest way in a city, and not the way next to the main roads.
- Include support for the most common human activities
We humans tend to follow the same patterns and we usually perform quite similar activities to reach certain outcomes. There are different situations when we are looking for restaurants, a small shop, a big supermarket, a fast food restaurant, a coffee shop or a toilet. I could imagine a menu with options that resemble common activities and include Eat, Drink, Sleep, Shop, See/Discover. The submenu for Eat would be “Fast Food”, “Average Restaurant”, “Exclusive Restaurant” – and Google Maps provides suggestions based on my current location.
- A location based search for actual products and services
When I was in Milan, I was not searching for a restaurant itself, I was searching for typical, traditional Italian pasta; same in California, I was looking for a shop that sells the Puma Black Label series of shoes and wouldn’t mind if I can find them in a store that is not a Puma store. So besides supporting certain activities that most humans perform regularly, location based search should also help me find the location of certain products – whether it is helping me find a certain pair of shoes or a restaurant that sells a certain kind of pasta. While the quality of the search results depends largely on the amount of data that is integrated, the first step might be to integrate Google Product Search into Google Maps.
- Turn Google Maps Mobile into a travel companion
Since the biggest use of Google Maps Mobile can be expected from people who are traveling (business and personal) Google Maps Mobile should be able to store all the relevant information for my trip (hotels, meeting points, maybe even appointment schedules – combined with Google Calendar) and be my travel companion that has all information available for me. I prepare it in advance (maybe by mailing it to a dedicated email address) and when I am on the road, I just push next, next, next.
- Solve the language problem
When I was in Brussels, I tried to search for the Flemish Parliament, the venue for a workshop that I planned to attend. Unfortunately Google Maps couldn’t help me because the Flemish Parliament can only be found with the correct Dutch term which is “Vlaams Parlement” – unfortunately I haven’t included that word in my Dutch vocabulary before. Even the search for “trainstation, St. Gallen, Switzerland” (my current residence) doesn’t return the expected results, only the search “Bahnhof, St. Gallen, Schweiz” returns the correct address. I understand that it is impossible to incorporate a complete dictionary but at least the most common search terms and locations should be multi-language capable.
- Include public transportation
If you are not familiar with the public transportation system in a city you have two choices: (1) spend a lot of time trying to figure out what could be the right mode of transportation or (2) spend a lot of money on taxis. Google Maps Mobile should help me find the right choice of public transportation – not just from one station to the other but from my place of departure to the place of arrival.
- Integrate, Integrate, Integrate
The quality of Google Maps Mobile (as well as Google Maps) depends fundamentally on the amount of integrated data. A search for restaurants can only generate useful results, when a sufficient number of restaurants are stored in the database. Otherwise it is still better to “open your eyes and look around”. While most McDonalds restaurants can be found through Google Maps in Switzerland, the data was still missing in Belgium.
These improvements – if adequately implemented – could render tremendously useful application for everyone who is traveling regularly. The integration of Google Maps into the iPhone, BlackBerry and other mobile phones creates a huge user base that could tap into these services. Yet as long as the quality and utility from Google Maps Mobile is still not better than that of “looking and asking around” we won’t see large adoption.
Does this only apply to Google Maps? Not necessarily – the company that is able to provide this functionality combined with a sufficiently large user base will become the leader for location based services.
The picture that is shown with this post is currently uncredited because I couldn’t track back the source. If you know the source of this picture, please drop me an email.
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