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TECHNOLOGY BREAKDOWN: Location, Location, Location

As I do every morning, I was going through the new dispatches from Reuters this morning (July 25, 2006) and I saw something I have been waiting for for a long time now ? a really useful mobile application. Now, longtime readers of this column know that I am not a big fan of Google, but there are a few things they do very well ? Google Maps being one of them. The Google Earth/Google World application notwithstanding (I look at it as just an extension of Google Maps anyway), there are very few reasons why Google Maps should have the kind of market acceptance it does because there are so many predecessors to it, Mapquest and road atlas publisher Rand McNally being two of them. The problem with both of these is that the developers forgot what made their sites successful in the first place ? accurate maps and accurate directions. The key for any GIS (geographic information system) application, such as a mapping and directions application, is that in order to be useful, the database the app draws its information from must be kept current. After all, what good is a map if the roads the map shows don't exist anymore, or are in different locations/configured differently than the map shows? Such were the problems that I was confronted with on an increasing basis with both Rand McNally and Mapquest, and was the reason I stopped depending on them.

Getting back to today's Reuters story, apparently the folks at Google [finally] made their map application really useful by making it available on mobile phones (you can download the application at http://google.com/gmm) . Now a mobile mapping application is very useful because not everyone rolls around with either a Thomas Guide, Key Map, or an internet connected laptop in the car, but judging by the number of people I get cut off by each day, damn near everyone rolls around with a mobile phone, so having maps and driving directions available literally at your fingertips is extremely useful. What makes Google Maps for Mobile really useful is that live traffic updates are also available in 30 major cities in the U.S. So not only can you get directions and a map of your route, but you can more effectively plan your trip because you can see what the traffic is doing and using the map, decide on an alternate route. I downloaded the application to my Crackberry and tried it out on trips to a couple of prospective clients. Based on my experiences with the application today, I think they have a winner. One thing I really liked about the application was the user interface ? it was designed with mobile phone users in mind. Realizing that the most frequent user of mapping apps is getting driving directions, once you enter the start and destination points for your trip, just like the web based app, the route is calculated, but at each turn, a marker is placed, and at each marker, the instructions for what to do there is displayed in a balloon. To move from marker to marker, you simply press either the 1 to move backwards or three to move forwards. Since most people can do this on their phones by touch, you don't have to take your eyes off the road much to navigate the application (this application in particular takes great advantage of the larger screen on a Blackberry). Apparently, the developers of the app realized that real estate on the screen of a mobile phone is precious, so they dispensed with smearing ads all over the place like they do on the web version of Google Maps (another ?feature? I greatly appreciated). Also like the web application, you have the ability to pan and zoom on the map, which turned out to be useful on my return trip because when I left my prospect, I was going the wrong way on the street, but the traffic in the direction of the route the application calculated for me was extremely heavy (being that it was on I-10 during rush hour ? Houston, LA makes no difference, the 10 is still the 10 even 2000 miles away). Panning the map in the direction I was travelling, I confirmed that an alternate route was available and I was able to avoid the heavy traffic highlighted on my route and what would have been a 45 minute mind numbing experience on I-10 turned into a pleasant (and quick) 15 minute jaunt through some nicely wooded neighborhoods.

The lesson that developers of mobile application can learn from Google Maps for Mobile are fundamental. First, because mobile users are well, mobile, the information imparted to the user is only useful if it is pertinent to the user's location. Therefore, when looking at the business case for justtifying the development (or investment in) a mobile application, the first question should be how to make the data the application gives the user location specific. Since most mobile application users are looking for some kind of recommendation; whether it be driving directions, or a restaurant a user is not going to be happy having to sort through information that is not specific to their current position. Second, mobile developers should be keenly aware of the challenges in designing user interfaces that are easily navigable from the keypad of a mobile phone. Last time I checked, people don't walk around with a keyboard and mouse hanging off of their phone. Third, if the information displayed does not reflect the current state of the user's location, it is useless. Oh, and did I mention location, location, location?

Russell de Pina is a Principal for n2active, a technology consulting firm located in Houston, TX and Long Beach, CA. When he's not exploring the nuances of traveling along I-10, Russell can be reached by email at rdepina@n2active.com.

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