I hate the word “disruptive,” as it’s often used in the internet world, because it’s something of a cliche. But I use it here because the new Navigation for Google Maps for Mobile will in fact be — disruptive.
On Monday we covered Google Navigation, the then rumor, asking “Will A Free Google GPS Sink The Navigation Industry?” While this won’t by itself do away with stand alone GPS navigation devices, it will help accelerate the decline of that segment. But more on that below.
Yesterday at Google in Mountain View I and a room full of press got a look at the new Google Maps navigation layer. The demo was on the new Android 2.0 Motorola “Droid” phone coming from Verizon (or so it appeared). Indeed, the new turn-by-turn navigation layer for Maps will only work on Android 2.0 devices. The question thus arises: Will the G1, MyTouch3G and other non-2.0 Android phones be able to upgrade?
Google Vice President of Engineering Vic Gundotra who was running the briefing said that the answer to that question lies with the Android carriers. I’m guessing that most pre-2.0 Android handsets will be capable of upgrading.
Gundotra led off the demo with some background information about Google Maps for Mobile. He said there were “hundreds of millions of downloads” since its debut four years ago. He also said that globally there are 50 million “active users” today. As he led into the Navigation announcement Gundotra told the group that turn-by-turn navigation was the “number 1 most requested feature” from Google Maps mobile users.
Here are some screenshots of Navigation provided by Google:
Without having had the opportunity to try it in a real-world situation I can say that the demo was quite impressive. The combination of Google’s search assets, voice interface and Maps features makes this product very hard to beat. Combine those elements with the fact that it’s free and Google Navigation represents very bad news for GPS device makers, their suppliers and the carrier subscription-navigation services (e.g., VZ Navigator). The irony here is that Verizon is aggressively pushing the Android phone that will almost certainly undermine its own paid-navigation business. (It may also promote Navigation as a sexy feature not currently available on the iPhone.)
On Google Navigation users can search manually or by voice “in plain English.” And the Quick Search Box on Android home screens makes this potentially very easy and fast. For example, without launching Google Maps you could say something like “navigate to Yankee Stadium” and be taken into the navigation layer in Maps, using current location as the starting point for directions. If Google doesn’t understand or there are multiple potential locations (e.g., Sheraton hotel) it will provide choices to enable users to select the correct destination.
Users can also do regular searches in Google Maps and then very quickly get turn-by-turn directions to the intended destination. Google is also leveraging its PC-mobile crossover capability. You can set up a personalized “My Map” on the PC (say, for a tour of wineries in Northern California), which is then transferred to mobile, and quickly get directions to each point on the intended route.
As the screens above indicate there’s a conventional map view (left) a satellite view (middle), which gets in pretty close and (right) a traffic view, which shows color-coded traffic conditions in real time (updated every vew minutes according to Gundotra). The traffic data are partly coming from Android users themselves anonymously.
Users can move between Navigation and Google Maps to conduct other searches. When users return to Maps the existing navigation is apparently preserved. There’s also the ability to search along the route. As you drive you can conduct any local search (for a specific business or category) and you’ll see the desired businesses along the route you’re traveling. (MapQuest also offers of version of this.)
Other nice features include a different “arms length” (larger, simplified) interface that automatically appears when you put the device into a dash or windshield-mounted dock. And here’s a really nice touch: “Navigation automatically switches to Street View as you approach your destination.”
As far as ads go, there are none in Navigation now but there will be at some point in the future, to correspond to ads on Google (PC) Maps today (and on the iPhone Maps).
Google CEO Eric Schmidt was in the room and participated in the Q&A discussion at the end of the briefing. He focused is remarks mainly on the processing power of smartphones and “the cloud.” Said Schmidt, “You can now build client apps that do magical things that are in the cloud.”
When the main part of the briefing was through I asked the first question about whether Navigation would become available for other platforms such as the iPhone. Gundotra hesitated a bit in his response saying that this was up to the third parties, such as Apple in this case. (My sense is that Google has some ambivalence about making it available on other platforms.) He affirmed that the iPhone was an important platform for Google and that it would be available on the iPhone at some point in the future. And he conceded that the iPhone 3Gs was certainly powerful enough to support the service.
For the time being, until Navigation does get to the iPhone this is a true competitive differentiator for Android 2.0 devices, which is why I think Verizon will promote it. By contrast, TomTom offers turn-by-turn navigation as a $99 iPhone app. Once Google Maps Navigation becomes available on the iPhone the TomTom app is no longer viable. Who will buy it when a comparable and potentially better app is free? Even the possibility that Google Navigation is coming to the iPhone will suppress demand for the TomTom app.
GPS devices have come under increasing pressure from smartphones with better and better maps and directions. Google’s free Navigation app is all but the last straw. We can expect Google Navigation to make it eventually to all the devices and platforms that Maps supports, including all the major smartphone platforms. And while a majority of mobile subscribers don’t have smartphones, the market is growing fast.
Finally a word about Android and Maps in general. After search Google Maps is probably the company’s most visible and successful product. Android is quickly emerging as a big success too. This Navigation offering really brings those two stories together in a powerful way. And the combination of all Google Maps features with turn-by-turn navigation will create loyalty that will extend to general web search on mobile devices as well. It’s really hard to see how competitors break that lock.
Postscript: Google has now extended Navigation to Android 1.6 devices such as the MyTouch3G/Magic.