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Tech Talk

All hail the digital map

7/6/2016

 

 

If you are about to endeavor on a multi-generational vacation, prepare yourself for an odd occurrence — our elders’ reluctance to give up the paper map. For millennia, the way to guide one’s journey was via drawn — then printed — paper maps. But now, apps and GPS-enabled devices have nearly erased the utility of these once vital tools. Paper maps are big, hard to orient and dangerous to use while driving. tech 7.7Whether we’re talking about the rest area/fold-out implement of our great state or a globe of the planet, physical maps are seemingly worthless.

The list of assailants in this coup is long, starting with gadgets companies like Garmin and TomTom, and online direction services like Mapquest. But without question, the tipping point in the paper map apocalypse was the release of Google Maps in 2005. After Google cemented its dominance in the web search field, it started to look at other high volume consumer information services it could tackle. Originally a product of startup “Where 2 Technologies,” Maps was acquired and quickly spun around with the Google brand slapped on top.

Celebrated by travelers, developers, data scientists and cartographers alike, Google Maps exploded. Initially split between casual users looking to print directions and data visualization of weather and other geographical data sets, Google Maps hit its stride with the smartphone revolution of 2008. Up until Android phones hit the market, expensive dash-mounted devices mostly performed the navigation. While they did use satellites to produce a route, GPS systems such as Garmin, Magellan and TomTom were bound to locally stored maps that didn’t generally update with traffic fluctuations or route detours. Google Maps was stored in the cloud, so routes were as up to date as Google kept its data. As an added bonus, Google slowly started incorporating satellite imaging and alternative transportation information to customize travel planning.

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So, if Google knocked paper maps to the canvas, its competitors have knocked it out. Waze rose to popularity in 2014 with its route sharing and social aspects, Mapquest has stayed in the game mirroring Google, and Apple even tried its hand forcing its service onto the market before embarrassing itself. Not to be outdone, Google has overstuffed Maps with every possible feature a traveller could want — custom map design, nearby location searches, route sharing, location commenting and rating, a timeline of previous travel, user contributions and places to keep track of important data and integration into its Google Earth feature that is on a global level of cartography.

Of course, one big question about using a smartphone to navigate a strange area is how will the device know where you are if you lose cellular connection? Well, easily the best enhancement to Google’s service in the last two years has been its “offline maps” feature. If a user knows he or she will be traversing a certain area frequently, but is uncertain if cellular service will be available, offline maps will save a requested map to the phone and allow for navigation without a data connection.

Beyond the luxury of having a computer do all the navigation, chances are you won’t accidentally lose a maps app like all too often happens with a paper map. So next time you climb into car with your mom and she cracks out the map, tear it up quick and hand her your cellphone. CV

 

Patrick Boberg is a central Iowa creative media specialist. Follow him on Twitter @PatBoBomb.

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