Walt Mossberg

Google Moves Ahead in Fight to Dominate the Map Apps

Apple has been taking lots of justified heat for its decision to replace Google Maps on the iPhone with a fledgling, and flawed, maps app of its own. In my otherwise favorable review of the new iPhone 5, I called Apple’s maps app “the biggest drawback” on the device and “a step backward from the familiar Google app.”

This flub by its archrival has been a gift to Google, which has taken the opportunity to publicize some recent, quietly announced improvements to its already-solid maps app that runs on phones using Google’s Android operating system, the iPhone’s biggest competitors. These include the ability to sync mobile map searches with those made on a computer, the ability to save maps for offline use, and routing for bicyclists.

So this week, I decided to dig into Android’s maps.

My verdict is that Google Maps on Android is a rich, versatile, mature, mostly reliable app that is getting better and better. It has its flaws — including some inaccuracies I encountered. However, with Apple’s switch, Google’s superior mapping app gives Android phones a clear advantage over the iPhone in this important function.

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Google Maps includes interior maps of some major stores, such as Macy’s in New York.

Before getting into the details, let me hasten to add that despite this advantage, Google has said it wants its maps on the iPhone and iPad, too, because they are a platform too big to ignore for the company’s services and ads. Google has pointed out that iPhone users can still get a limited version of Google Maps via the phone’s Web browser.

In fact, Google plans to announce on Thursday that it is adding its popular Street View feature, missing from Apple’s maps, to the Web version of Google Maps accessed from the iPhone and iPad. I tested this addition, which displays 360-degree photographic street views of selected locations, and interior photographic views of certain businesses, using sample links Google sent me. These links worked well, allowing me to see the locations and pan around with a finger.

Also, I believe Google is working on a new Google Maps app for the Apple platform, one that would be offered as an optional download.

But the focus of this column is on Google Maps on Android, which I’ve used many times in the past but never examined this closely. For my tests, I used several Android devices, including a Samsung Galaxy Nexus phone, a Google Nexus 7 tablet and, most often, a new Android phone, the $100 Droid Razr M from Motorola, the cellphone company now owned by Google.

I looked up dozens of addresses and searched for dozens of businesses and noncommercial points of interest, locally, across the U.S., and in other countries. I used the Android maps app to navigate on several car trips, ranging from a 10-minute jaunt to a 70-mile, 90-minute trip from the Washington, D.C., suburbs to Gettysburg, Pa. (I was a passenger on this trip, not a distracted driver). And I tried out the newest features.

I found the Android version of Google Maps to be not only better than Apple Maps, but also better than the iPhone version of Google Maps that Apple dropped. The biggest advantage over the former iPhone version, and the straw that apparently broke the camel’s back for Apple, was that the Android version of Google Maps, but not the old iPhone version, has long included free, voice-prompting, automatic turn-by-turn navigation. Apple added that ability to its Maps app.

In general, Google Maps on Android offers richer maps, with more streets and points of interest noted, than Apple’s. Though I found Apple’s navigation screens more striking and easier to read at a glance, the Android navigation screens showed more surrounding streets and thus more context, which was very useful, especially on my less familiar trip to Gettysburg.

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In Google Maps on Android, the buildings of a residential quad at Brandeis University were all properly labeled.

And Google labels individual buildings within many large complexes, so you can find your way around. One example: I looked up a residential quad at Brandeis University in Google Maps, and found that, on Android, the buildings were all properly labeled. The same search on Apple Maps found the university and the quad, but gave no clue as to which building was which.

Google Maps on Android includes interior maps of some major stores, museums, malls and airports.

For example, it shows the location of individual departments inside Macy’s flagship New York store, even letting you move between floors to view each level’s locations. On Apple Maps, the huge store appears as a gray blob or a 3-D exterior picture.

However, Google’s navigation directions weren’t always more accurate. In a short test drive between my house and a local hotel (during which I listened to the phones but didn’t look at the screens), the Android phone tried to start me off on a circuitous route through my neighborhood. Worse, both Google and Apple advised me to take an illegal left turn into the hotel.

I wasn’t surprised Apple did this, given its recent public admission that its maps need work and don’t meet its own standards. But Google’s error shocked me, since it has been working at this for seven years and built its own maps and data for the U.S.

When told about my experience, Google admitted its maps aren’t perfect and said it is in the process of fixing this error.

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A search of Brandeis University in Apple Maps gave no clue to which building was which.

Also, Google Maps on Android can be confusing to use, at least at first. Satellite view and traffic information are contained in a menu called “layers,” a term most people wouldn’t recognize. Google concedes its user interface needs some work.

But overall, Google Maps on Android was a trustworthy and friendly partner. I loved the fact I could sync searches between my computer and Android phone. I looked up the Kremlin in a browser on a Mac, and seconds later it showed up as a recent search suggestion on the Android phone.

I found offline maps less useful. I could save an area of the map on the Android phone. But once I turned off the phone’s connectivity, I found that while I could browse through this saved map, I couldn’t search or navigate within it.

So if Google Maps on Android are so much better, should you buy an Android phone?

There are many other factors to consider and the iPhone still has plenty of pluses. But if mapping is very important to you, Android is the way to go.

Email Walt at mossberg@wsj.com.


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