New Google Mobile Maps Lean More on the Phone, Less on the Cloud

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Google is revamping its Google Maps for Mobile product, relying less on the cloud and more on the processing power of the phone to help improve the experience and give users more offline help. The new Google Maps, which will appear within days (first on newer Android devices), will include offline map support for users who are out of cell phone range, a blessing for subway riders and cell phone subscribers in sketchy coverage areas. Google Maps will also do more rendering on the phone itself, which will dramatically improve the zooming, presentation and reorienting of maps on devices.

The improvements suggest Google understands that even while it promotes a very cloud-reliant world, in mobile especially it’s helpful to push some of the processing and data to the phone to help round out the experience and make up for times when connectivity isn’t reliable. I think this is a great improvement, especially living in New York City when I’m often underground or in spotty coverage. It addresses one thing we wrote about recently, the need for more offline support for mobile apps. This should be helpful for many users, not just city dwellers, though in some cases, it could drain batteries more during extended use.

Now instead of pinging Google’s servers to render maps, Google will regularly push out simplified maps to users’ phones based on the locations they most often visit, such as work and home. So if you live in San Francisco and you have zero bars, Google will serve up a cached map for the city down to the block level. You won’t be able to conduct location searches if you’re not connected, but you can see where you need to go and get most labels for locations. The simplified versions of the maps will contain 100 times less data than is normally pulled for Google Maps, but it’s still a significant amount. So Google will grab the relevant maps when a user is on Wi-Fi or has enabled pre-fetching over cellular.

The offline support will also extend to Google Map Navigation. Navigation currently caches a route for turn-by-turn directions, but it doesn’t guide people back to the original route when they stray off course. The new Maps Navigation will reroute users back to their original course in 90 percent of scenarios where they get off track.

In addition to offline support, Google Maps will also include more dynamic map rendering on the phone. That means instead of sending a series of images of maps that reflect various zooming levels, Google will send the basic mapping data to the phone, which will render the maps on the device. Users will see smoother zooming and they’ll also be able to reorient their view in any direction with a twisting pinching maneuver, instead of seeing north at the top of the screen. As they rotate the screen, labels will adjust so they’re always readable. Google Maps will also work with the compass to automatically reorient the map view based on the direction a person is facing when they tap on compass view, something the maps application on the iPhone already does.

With dynamic rendering, users will be able to get a more Google Earth like 3-D view of maps. By dragging two fingers down on the screen, users will view maps from a lower 3-D angle. Buildings in some 100 cities worldwide will also appear in 3-D, their shapes outlined in transparent gray.

The dynamic rendering actually means about 2/3 less map data sent to the phone. But it will involve more processing on the phone end, which could impact users who spend a lot of time in the Google Maps app. Michael Siliski, a lead product manager for Google Maps for Mobile said most users won’t see an appreciable difference in battery usage.

Siliski said the overall improvements represent arguably the biggest changes in Google Maps for Mobile since it launched. And it builds on earlier offline caching improvements in Gmail and rounds out the Google Maps experience for users, Siliski said. “This is a robust fall back, it’s designed to fill in the gaps around the experience today,” he said.

The new Maps app will eventually appear in Android Market though no date has been announced. It will not work on older G1 and original MyTouch devices but should be fine on phones newer than the Nexus One. Siliski said Google will look to bring the updated Maps app to other platforms though it may take a while, just like Google Maps Navigation is still a no show on non-Android devices. But overall, a good set of improvements that makes Google Maps even more usable.

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