Off the Map. Google’s Last Location Weakness.

Google’s Offline Maps Are OK. Is Better Coming?

Google maps

Google’s otherwise impressive Google Maps for mobile falls behind competitors in one area: offline maps. Type “OK Maps” into your Google Maps app and it’ll download that portion of the map for use offline, but these snapshots are awkward and only partially useful.

However, this has the consequence of keeping users connected to get full search and navigation. For Google, a connected user is the best user.

EU summer travellers will enjoy news from the European Commission, then: the body has further capped roaming charges within European Union countries, dropping costs for voice, messaging, and data. Roaming charges for voice calls will be capped at €0.19 (down from €0.24), messages at €0.06 (down from €0.08), and data at €0.20 per megabyte (down 55%, from €0.45). These new rates are effective as of 1 July.

This reminds me of anecdotes I’ve heard of travellers who accidently turned their smartphones into fiercely expensive personal navigation devices. Driving in a foreign country can be a stressful experience for many. For a few, picking up the phone bill on their return home can be just as traumatic.

It’s not easy to find fault with Google Maps for mobile. It’s a great free app attached to an amazing service. The search feature is consistently spot-on, coverage is complete in Western markets and navigation almost never fails. As a driver, it’s like having a clever friend in the passenger seat. This is all true as long as you have an active data connection, but go off the grid and things can get tricky.

The process of downloading Google’s maps for offline use feels cumbersome and a lot less useful than some competing products that allow users carry continents of offline map data. Google offers something more like a screen grab at a time. They work well, but mean that going offline makes for a very different experience.

I’ve been debating the reasons for this, or whether Google just hasn’t enabled a more thorough offline maps experience yet — one complete with search, navigation, and worry-free roaming. For example, the ability for a British tourist to download all map data of France (including points of interest, public transport and with the capacity to create navigation routes) would change the dynamics of the current location-based business models. Customers on prepaid plans or in very remote areas with partial network coverage would also benefit.

There are certainly aspects of online functionality that’ll always be lost by going offline. The live traffic updates service is a fantastic facility that only a connection can enable. I can understand that Google would be hesitant to lose the data stream, as crowd-sourced information gathering is a two-way street.

OK, for Google, offline maps might be the longest mile. For competitors, it’s the one gap in Google’s service to highlight to users.