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Google Maps Travels Off-Road, Into the Sky, and Into the Pocket

Google unveiled new features to its mapping technology Wednesday, including an offline mobile version of Google Maps and 3D enhancements to Google Earth.

The announcement comes just before Apple is expected to drop Google Maps from its built-in mapping application on the iOS platform and pursue advanced mapping development on its own.

But Google didn’t mention Apple as it rolled out some of the newest features to its mapping services.

Off the Beaten Path

Google Street View cameras are now going places where wheels can’t. The company revealed a backpack equipped with cameras with which a trekker can capture images such as the Grand Canyon or the ski slopes for more expansive mapping capabilities.

Google also announced that in the next few weeks, users will be able to access Google Maps from Android mobile devices while offline from more than 100 countries.

Additionally, maps of some metropolitan areas will soon be displayed in 3D imagery. Google will collect the 3D images from a small fleet of airplanes equipped with Google Earth cameras

Google did not respond to our request for further details.

Getting Offline

One of the most in-demand new features to Google’s upgrade is the offline capability, Matt Sheehan, principal and senior geospatial developer at WebMapSolutions, told TechNewsWorld.

“The way technology is changing now means people are getting rid of pens and paper and wanting to do a lot more on their smartphones and tablets, even though they’re sometimes still in places where there’s no connection,” he said. “We have people ask us a couple times a week to help them build something offline.”

The new offline capabilities would let an international traveler pre-load a map of a certain city and get around without an international data plan, for instance. The offline option would also be beneficial for workers who want to use an Android device in construction or conservation industries that must work in remote areas such as waterways and forests that don’t have WiFi access.

Taking Competition Head-On

Google’s announcement comes just days before Apple is expected to reveal its own mapping technology for its newest mobile operating system. Google Maps is the default service for iPhones and iPads, and getting dropped from iOS could be a significant loss for the search engine giant. But while Apple has a history of wowing audiences and winning loyal followers, said Sheehan, this is one area in which Google has had more development time and talent to prove it excels.

“The knee-jerk reaction from people in the industry is that Google is just doing it to one-up Apple, and maybe that’s true,” said Sheehan. “But Apple has a lot of catching up to do before it can reach what Google is doing in mapping.”

If Apple can’t catch up before it launches its presumed new mapping technology, it runs the risk of losing consumers early in its game, said Ming-Hsiang Tsou, professor in the geography department at San Diego State University.

“Apple is taking a big risk to break away from Google Maps because many iPhone Apps are relying on Google Maps’ data — both maps and location-based services,” he told TechNewsWorld. “Apple’s new maps maybe more fancy, 3D or colorful, but if Apple’s maps cannot provide good quality of maps and location-based info, users will switch to Google Maps later.”

Location-based services and mapping have even bigger potential going forward.

“What was most interesting to us was that the announcements weren’t of a game-changing technology, as the 3D has been done before, but the truly enormous scale of Google’s commitment to do this for such a large amount of data,” Giles Collingwood, head of operations at Earthware, told TechNewsWorld. “They are obviously committing some serious bucks to the project.”

Beyond the Map

The mobile frontier is relatively unpaved, said Sheehan, and Google, Apple, Bing and other mapping services realize that location-based services could be a huge break into leadership in the mobile industry.

“The announcements in mapping today are really being driven by mobile,” he said. “There’s a turf war going on between the companies, because we’re kind of in a place where there’s a lot of discussion about what’s next in the mobile space. These updates are very much driven by consumers, and there’s a lot of resources being focused using location for marketing.”

That’s part of the reason Google has such an advantage, said Tsou.

“The real value of Google Maps is not the map data itself, but the points of interests, such as gas stations, restaurants, schools embedded inside the map databases, which are called ‘location-based services,'” he said.

Nailing down those location-based services and incorporating them into a larger business strategy will be key for the next leader in Web mapping, said Sheehan.

“It’s moving beyond the map,” he said. “It’s beyond getting from point A to point B, and Google is kind of ahead on that, but nobody still knows what Apple or anyone else is going to do. But that’s where the growth is.”

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