On Monday October 27, 2009 I started writing this piece. On Tuesday October 28, 2009 Google announced that Android 2 will have GPS for free. You'll see in a second how utterly important is this precise dating. The dates matter mostly because they make me think that sometimes I have my finger on the pulse of the culture at large. My girlfriend lives over 100 miles away from me so the only pulse my fingers usually feel is my own. Ahem, back to Monday. I tried using Google Maps, Hopstop, and the trip finder on the MTA website to figure out how said girlfriend (who doesn't live in Canada) was going to catch her bus via the subway. All three sites were dead wrong about the subway schedule. All of them. Hence, I wanted to write about how current mapping and direction technology still have a long way to go and then on Tuesday Google made their big announcement. You know, sometimes you wail and moan to the world and the world answers back. However, I complain about a lot of things so the odds of the subject of my whining being in the public discourse are pretty good. Before my bitching begins, let's discuss the news from Google.
This announcement means anyone with a phone running on Android will now how have a little GPS in their back pocket. This has huge ramifications in the navigation industry. Having access to Google Maps Street View to show a real picture of where you're heading will surely be an advantage over current GPS tools. This is just one of a few new super, tricked-out, cool options. Will all of this put TomTom and Garmin out of business? Who cares? I don't and this is why I'm writing this article. It's not like any of these devices or software are doing a good job at what they say they do. No directional doohickey, as of yet, can get me from point A to point B better than a paper map without serious aggravation.
Why can't any of these services get things right? Why do GPS systems always take you through the ghetto? I understand that it's all very complicated and I have no intention of doing any research as to what some of the barriers to a creating a successful mapping program may be. What I'm pissed about is that they need to stop acting like they know what they're doing.
OK, it's time to let the cat out of the bag. This whole directions thing probably upsets me more than most because I have no sense of direction. I get lost all the time and possess little confidence. A dangerous combination. Some people have a sense of direction. There are others who have a little sense of direction and then there are people like me who head in the wrong direction 99% of the time. I need lots of assurances; multiple landmarks, specific addresses, warnings when I need to make a hard right, a soft right, a dogleg right, or just a gentle veering. I need specifics. I still get lost in my hometown. It's on a grid. So, I long to put all of my trust in Google to get me from hither to thither, but I just can't do that yet. I've been burned too many times. The same goes for you, TomTom. I see you over there HopStop. You say you know when the train lines are under construction, but you've been wrong more than you've been right. Why? Why is this?
I keep wanting to rely on new technology because old technology is burdensome. Sure, I could carry around maps, but they tear and smear and take up too much space in my backpack. They also don't update themselves or talk to you. This is why everyone is so eager to rely on things like Google's new free GPS. We all recognize there is a need for quick and convenient directions, but we put up with a lot of grief and, if we admit it to ourselves, a lot of frustration when just asking someone or pulling up a physical map would be easier. On a recent roadtrip my travel companion and I had a GPS but our saving grace was our Rand McNally Atlas purchased at WalMart for $19.95. We had to use the paper map to confirm that the GPS was taking us in the right direction. This should not have to be the case.
What I want is simple. I want a consensus. I want consistency. I want to go to MapQuest and get directions then go to Google and get the same exact directions. I want, when using a GPS for it to say "you've arrived at your destination. It's on your right. The place with the red door," and I want it to say this when I'm actually there. Not when I'm a few hundred yards away.
Google's pronouncement sounds promising but all of these GPS, mapping, and direction systems have yet to prove they've moved beyond adolescence in their capabilities. In the meantime, I guess I'll just have to continue to get lost.
Come on, Eldrick.