Google’s GPS Sneak Attack

It’s about time to upgrade my aging Palm Treo. Apple is evil, so I won’t buy an iPhone. Palm is lame, so I won’t buy a Pre. I am waiting for a good Android phone.

10.28.09, Lance Ulanoff, PC Magazine

Google Maps Navigation for Android 2.0 nearly stole the show from Verizon’s Droid—and now it threatens every GPS company out there.

Who knew that the Motorola Droid phone and Android 2.0 would be a Trojan horse for Google’s latest tech salvo: turn-by-turn GPS navigation? Not me. Not most of my co-workers. Here we were gearing up for one of the most eagerly anticipated handsets of the last 12 months—the Verizon Droid—only to watch Google steal a good deal of thunder from a new phone with Google Maps Navigation for Android 2.0.

To be clear, the free app only works with Android 2.0, and for the time being, there is only one Android 2.0 phone: Verizon’s Droid. It’s a nice phone, by the way. Mobile Managing Editor Sascha Segan gave me a few minutes with it, and I was impressed with the design and the highly responsive, high-resolution screen (the slide-out keyboard, however, seemed kind of meh). There are so many big touch screen phones on the market today, however, that even a new one for the industry-leading Verizon network may not be a game changer. Google Maps Navigation is another story.

I’m certain that the execs at TomTom, Garmin, and Magellan all sat up and took notice of the little e-bomb Google just dropped this morning. According to the Google blog, the free app (still in beta, by the way), has constantly updated maps, voice-driven commands and search, free traffic details, search for points of interest along route, 3D views, turn-by-turn direction—well, you get the idea. It has a lot of what you’ll find in the best stand-alone GPS devices. Plus it’s coupled with a big touch screen and something most GPS devices do not have: a keyboard.

The Droid and Google Maps Navigation aren’t perfect. Though large, the Droid’s screen is not as big as, for example, my Magellan 1470. That has a 4.7 inch screen and is designed from the ground up for GPS. Also, the Droid doesn’t come with a car-mounting system; you’ll have to buy that separately. Current GPS devices ship everything you need in one package. I envision more than a few early adopters putting the Droid on the passenger seat next to them (at least Google Maps Navigation does offer a simple “Car Mode” interface). Even so, I think Google’s latest beta mobile app will spark industry changes.

This should force cell phone service provider competitors like AT&T to rethink their strategies. If I want to, for example, enable AT&T Navigator on my Blackberry Bold 9000, I have to pay a monthly fee. Even Verizon may want to take another look at its own VZ Navigator. It wants $9.99 a month for that. I get that some Verizon phones don’t support Google Maps (and likely won’t support Google Maps Navigation). Still, consumers don’t always get these nuances, and Verizon customers may wonder why they, too can’t sample the free GPS turn-by-turn navigation goodness available on Verizon’s Droid phone.

I haven’t tried the Google Maps Navigation, but I have to assume that it’s deeply integrated with Google’s search platform. Local search is, as always, a critical part of any search provider’s business, and Google does it well, even without GPS navigation. Now put Google’s local search capabilities together with a powerful GPS device, and you have the biggest and, potentially, best POI database on the market.

I hesitate to call GPS a killer phone app, but I wouldn’t want to downplay its importance, either. It was a big deal when TomTom released their turn-by-turn navigation for the iPhone earlier this year. Plus, for pure utility, always-there GPS-based navigation is tough to beat. A couple of weeks ago I was walking in downtown New York City—in an area I’m not all that familiar with– when a hapless woman asked me for directions (when all else fails, people treat other people like their own personal GPS devices). She asked about a street, and while it sounded familiar, I’m 85 percent certain I sent her in the wrong direction. I considered taking out my phone to try and help her, but then remembered that I had not activated AT&T Navigator. If the woman had a phone with always-there, turn-by-turn GPS—well it’s unlikely she would have stopped and asked for directions.

Google’s sneak attack aside, the more salient question is whether or not they can win in this space. Or maybe it isn’t. Google doesn’t always arrive with the intention of winning. Sure, it wants to make a mark, but I think Google will be happy to win the war of attrition. It’s now introduced a product that will make Verizon’s Droid that much more desirable. Which means Google wins on at least three counts: people want Google Navigator (it’s Google, it’s free, it’s cool), and they also now want an Android phone. If they get it, they’ll be pounding more than ever on the Google search engine looking for good hotels or breakfast nooks as they drive from Poughkeepsie to Florida–which means more eyeballs to all those merchants hooked into the Google AdSense program, which, in turn, translates into more ad dollars for Google.

In the end, the arrival of Google Maps Navigation deals a major blow to dedicated GPS device manufacturers and one of the biggest, craftiest wins of Google’s decade-long existence.

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