Map Services Online

This article was published by ComputorEdge, issue #2422, , as the cover article, in both their print edition (on pages 10 and 12) and their website.

During the mid-1990s, prior to any interactive map websites being available to the public, computer users were generally delighted that a few software companies were offering map programs that ran on desktop computers. For instance, Travroute developed and sold a mapping application, Door-to-Door, which contained street maps and addresses for all major metropolitan areas in the United States. It wasn't free, and it wasn't flawless, but to computer aficionados everywhere, that sort of program was a huge step forward.

As more people increasingly turned to the Internet for email and other services previously limited to the desktop environment, it was inevitable that one or more Internet players would introduce similar mapping services — either fee-based or free. As a testament to the popularity of the Web, just as soon as pioneers such as MapBlast and MapQuest rolled out their free map services, they rolled right over the desktop-bound counterparts, and gobbled up the bulk of their market share.

One characteristic of the e-commerce boom was that dot-com's were willing to give away services for free, just to "capture eyeballs" on the Web. Naturally, when faced with such overwhelming competition, the desktop map application vendors found it difficult to sell their wares at a fee, and folded or were gobbled up.

Not only have the original map services expanded their functionality, but several Internet heavyweights got into the act, including Yahoo, Microsoft, and Google. Now there are more such options to choose from, which can leave the average Internet user a bit confused as to which ones are the best. I will make a brief survey of the major free online map services, and see what they have to offer.

Common Features

While the map services that I will discuss have unique capabilities — as well as unique weaknesses — they all share some basic functionality. Most critical of all is presenting street maps, in color, with freeways, major roads, waterways, state and county boundaries, airports, parks, and other important features clearly labeled. The mapping systems allow the user to zoom in and out — zooming in to the extent that every road pictured is labeled, and zooming out to the extent that the entire continental United States can be seen as a whole.

All of the worthy map services allow the user to center the map at any valid street address or primary landmark, such as an airport. Given that the map data providers store in their databases almost all of the current addresses in the United States, misspellings are usually not a problem, and the correct address can be suggested. In addition, the user can pan in eight different directions.

Of great value to people planning trips, the online map services can plot a favorable route between any two given locations, and provide decent approximations as to the total length of the trip in miles, and the amount of time that it would take to drive (assuming that posted speed limits are obeyed). In addition, a map can be emailed to someone else, or prepared for printing — which usually means that the map is enlarged and the usual barrage of ads is temporarily held in check.

MapBlast and MapQuest

Two of the trail blazers in this arena are MapBlast and MapQuest. The former at one time held over 70% of the market share, but has since slipped considerably. It was gobbled up by Microsoft, and is now known as MSN Maps & Directions. Their maps are the smallest and the most difficult to read, and seem to cram in the highest number of markers indicating various commercial establishments, such as restaurants, which have no doubt paid for this inclusion.

MapQuest emerged on the scene later than MapBlast, but has the advantage of providing larger and more readable maps, with less of the commercial clutter. But like MapBlast, it does not appear to allow the storing of favorite addresses. On the other hand, the Web page returned for any given address contains the address in the URL, which does thereby allow one to bookmark the page.

Neither mapping service is a favorite with most people, for these and other reasons. Fortunately, they at least demonstrated to other Internet players the potential for such services, and the tremendous popularity.

Yahoo or Google

Prior to Google beginning its methodical dominance of one Internet service after another, Yahoo was the top dog, and for some time their Yahoo Maps was clearly the favorite. Their maps look as good as those of MapQuest, but have the advantage of being storable as favorite locations, which can be a real convenience if you find yourself traveling a lot among a fairly fixed set of locations. This may actually be the primary reason why Yahoo Maps took the leading position, and held it for so long.

That dominance is now being contested, by Google, which is the Internet's apparent new 800-pound gorilla, or at least its Goliath (in search of a David). In typical style, Google let other companies forge ahead and pioneer the online map realm. Yahoo and MapQuest quickly took the lead, and probably figured that their dominance was well-established.

Meanwhile, the Google programmers took the time to create a map service that, when introduced, in May 2005, was described by pundits and users alike as breathtaking. It was perhaps the first glimpse that Internet users had of the power of AJAX, which allows Web pages to behave far more interactively without the Web page having to be refreshed.

Powered by JavaScript, Google Maps could be zoomed in and out, and moved in different directions, seemingly without the Web browser page having to reload. First-time users were overwhelmed, and generally delighted with the maps that were larger and more attractive than the competition's.

But Yahoo was not about to relinquish the crown easily. They soon began developing an answer to Google Maps, and appear to have succeeded. At the time of this writing, users can now try Yahoo Maps Beta.

In some respects, Yahoo Maps Beta looks quite similar to its Google counterpart, but does have some differences. Google maps only allows the storing of a single address, as the user's default, while Yahoo continues its tradition of enabling multiple addresses to be stored as part of the user's Yahoo account. Also, the zoom feature is presented as a small inset window, with a slider bar that resizes the inset map dynamically. Some people may prefer this over Google Maps' elevator-style slider bar.

Regardless of whether you choose Yahoo or Google for plotting your next road adventure, or just a trip to the local library, it is clear that online maps have come a long way since their introduction, and certainly provide coverage of a much higher percentage of the United States, and to greater levels of detail. Using "I got lost" as an excuse for arriving late, is losing credibility all the time.

Copyright © 2006 Michael J. Ross. All rights reserved.
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