Google Maps’ New Offline Mode

Location Services Competition Heats Up

GooglemapsGoogle introduced some potentially market-altering features and services at its I/O developer conference yesterday in San Francisco. These include an updated version of the Android OS (known as M), a new NFC-based payment service called Android Pay, a free unlimited photo storage service and improved mobile battery management features. Google is also boosting support for virtual reality content with new software tools and hardware, embedding fingerprint support into Android for improved cross-device authentication and is improving usability with greater permission controls. Please see our Instant Insight for analysis of the announcements (subscription required).

One other update discussed briefly at the conference was an improved offline mode for Google Maps. It’s been a soft spot for the company’s maps service, particularly when compared with competing products like Nokia’s Here maps (which supports flexible offline usage).

A year ago we wrote about this ostensible gap in the mapping service — a gap that rivals have been keen to highlight (see Daily Insight: Google’s Last Location Weakness). The ability to download map data through Wi-Fi or sideloading before a trip prevents the need to stream through a live and sometimes very costly data connection.

However, there are advantages to keeping devices hooked into a network, for Google and the user. An active connection provides users with ongoing traffic updates and access to the latest maps, and Google can gather signals from moving cars and pedestrians in return. It’s a form of crowd sourcing and a method of individual behaviour profiling.

The I/O demo showed search and navigation being performed on a smartphone set in airplane mode, though some satellite connection is still required for a location fix. The offline search capabilities included autocomplete, and results gave points of interest with detailed information such as reviews and opening hours.

It’s not yet clear exactly how extensive the offline mode offered by Google will be, but providing users with the ability to download maps of entire regions together with voice packages adds value to Google Maps. It will be less useful to subscribers with generous data bundles in developed markets (though it’s likely that operators would appreciate the relief during peak hours), but one of the real advantages would be in developing markets. Users still need to get data onto the device, and Wi-Fi signals aren’t often widely available, but this could be addressed through Google-sponsored data or maps preloaded by device makers.

The improved Google Maps offline feature will be available later this year, though not quite in time for use on summer vacations — streaming maps while roaming on a foreign mobile data connection has resulted in some painful billing experiences.

This update to Google’s navigation app could have a significant effect on the current maps oligopoly. There are a limited number of competitors in the market for digital maps: Google, Nokia (Here) and TomTom are the key commercial suppliers. The growing importance of contextual services is giving these players increased advantages. Return on maps investments has been quite poor given the costs of obtaining and updating the data, but these expenses are spreading across a greater number of devices including cars, bikes and wearables.

For users around the globe, location services took a turn for the better yesterday. Google stands a good chance of finding a profitable local business model, something that’s been tricky so far. On-device storage is getting cheaper, and satellite positioning connections are free. As smartphone use spreads quickly across emerging markets, Google could be the company getting people to where they’re going.

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