Tag Archives: Google

Map Ado About Nothing

Navigation It’s amazing how much noise in mobile technology is created for issues that are at best marginal. For example, there was the iPhone 4 Antennagate. Honestly, my iPhone 4 didn’t give me any antenna problems, nor did my iPhone 4s. I really love my current Nexus 4 phone, but it actually does have problems dropping signal or weak signal. Sometimes it just won’t connect in a place where I know it should, and I have to reboot it. Of course, there is no Nexus 4 antennagate, though perhaps there should be.

So I thought I’d touch on another non-issue… maps in smartphone navigation. I haven’t done any comprehensive test of maps that you could call scientific, but I do know what my own experience is, and it somehow doesn’t match what the noise on the internet says. For the record, I have an android phone and table, and an iOS phone and tablet, so I can currently run checks that should be pretty good.

One thing that I’ve done frequently when I travel with colleagues from work is have us both run our mapping apps at the same time. In the past, I’ve had multiple occasions where the android device using Google maps got us to the wrong location, while the Apple device was correct. Bit caveat here – I normally use a paid app on the iPhone, either Navigon or Magellan. I happen to believe that with maps you get what you pay for, and my experience continues to support that. With that in mind, I really was comparing Google maps to paid maps.

And there’s the rub – if you’re used to old-fashioned web-base map applications with static routes and static turn-by-turn, then the Google map app is amazing. More still if you’ve been stuck in the tar pits and are using a paper map. The experience is so much better with Google, that the fans tend to overlook the comparison with serious GPS applications and devices, where Google maps looks mediocre at best. Don’t get me wrong, Google has a good track record of improving things they care about, and maps seems to be one of them, so it probably will get there. At the moment however, it takes a back seat to the traditional GPS big boys.

So Apple dumped Google map late last year for their own app, how has that worked out? Well there was a lot of noise about how horrible it was and how much money it would cost and how long it would take to fix them. As it turned out, many fixes were made much faster than the naysayers predicted. Surprise – Apple has deep pockets! Note that Apple still has a ways to go, especially against the afore-mentioned GPS big boys, but overall it’s not bad. Like Google, if Apple cares, they’ll fix the problems. If it’s a “marketing checkbox” for them, then it’ll never get fixed. I’d hope for the former, but since I almost always use 3rd party map apps and currently carry the Nexus 4 as my primary, it doesn’t really matter to me.

As far as the reason Apple changed, I’ll leave that as an exercise for the aspiring journalist, but a few possible reasons are:

a) Apple wants to screw us
b) Apple wants to screw Google
c) Apple wants to stop sending revenue in Google’s direction
d) Apple wanted to build voice turn-by-turn full app and Google license didn’t allow it

apple_maps_tomtom1apple_maps_tomtom2 A point to remember in this comparison is also that many people still don’t seem to know that TomTom supplies at least some of the map data behind Apple maps. Note from the picture on the left the TomTom name right above the “Drop Pin” button. On the right look for TomTom intellectual property in the last paragraph. Everyone loves TomTom, everyone hates Apple – what does that tell you about anti-fanboi-ism? The people at TomTom say that the data is fine, and the app has problems, and I suspect they’re correct. I suspect the overall question of accuracy is less troublesome than people make it out to be.

The question is how does it work out in real life usage. I have three examples I’d like to share. My first actual test was traveling to San Francisco for a conference. It was a quick trip, so I decided to use public transit and my feet. Yes, here Apple has a problem, they need public transit support. I was lucky, because I knew basically what I was doing to get from Airport to downtown. The maps came into play when I exited the subway and tried to find my hotel.

In the past, I’ve not been very happy with GPS when I’m on foot in a city. Out in the field they’re great, but when trapped between tall buildings and weak signal it’s tricky, plus nuances of direction and signal accuracy can be far more confusing. On this point Apple scored big for me. When you drill down to their 3D view, you can actually tell not just where you want to go, but where you actually are. Foot travel was a win for Apple. I do happen to enjoy Google’s street view, but I don’t find it useful for navigation.

Best Buy SLO location in Google maps on a Nexus 4
Best Buy SLO location in Google maps on a Nexus 4

The second experience was a recent trip to San Luis Obispo. At the hotel I found myself missing a wanted cable, (gotta have that HDMI cable so I can connect my table to the hotel TV) so I set out in search of the local Best Buy. It was my first trip carrying the Nexus 4, so I was using Google maps.

Best Buy SLO location in Apple maps in iOS 6 on an iPhone 5
Best Buy SLO location in Apple maps in iOS 6 on an iPhone 5

As you can see from the maps on either side, Google got it wrong, while Apple got it right. Unfortunately for me, I was only carrying the Nexus 4 at the time, and had to resort to stopping at a few stores to get directions. When I tried it on my iPhone later, you can see that it put me at the store front, rather than the middle of an empty field.

I know that this happens to Apple maps users as well, the point is that Google also suffers from it’s own share of inaccuracies. I will note that in this instance, I definitely like the better imagery of the Google maps, but accuracy has to come first. Imagery quality varies by locations, sometimes giving the nod to Google, and other times Apple.

Another situation happened to me on New Year’s Eve at the Pomona Valley Mining Co in Pomona, CA. I’ve driven past the place numerous times, as it sits on a hill above the freeway, but I’ve never actually been there and wasn’t sure how to approach it, so I took to the phone maps once again.

pomico_la_iphone4 The top picture, captured from my iPhone, shows a good route using Apple maps. Unfortunately, this was captured after-the-fact, having been misdirected by Google I was curious once again to see if the Apple maps had it right.

The bottom photo is where my Google maps on my Nexus 4 tried to send me. Note that it was correct up until the last, where it directed me for a final right turn, instead of a left and a quick-right. Lucky for me I stopped at the intersection with no traffic behind me and figured it out. pomico_la_nexus4_google

As a funny afterthought, I tried the same thing at home using Navigon on android and it got me to the same wrong place as Google maps, while Navigon on iOS just stopped at the road itself where Android was telling me to turn right, without telling me to turn left or right. This one surprised me, as I’ve had pretty good luck with Navigon. Magellan on iOS did the “right” thing by telling me to turn left. I’m not sure what maps sit behind Navigon on both platforms, but it would be interesting to know.

So there you have it, so far I’ve tried Apple maps three times against Google, and where I live and travel, Apple works out better than Google. What have your experiences with maps been? What app do you really love?

[Update 2016-03-11 It really depends where you live. In the Tysons Corner / McLean Virginia area Apple maps is horrible. In California it’s generally pretty good. Waze is really great in lots of areas – but mostly where there is heavy population density.]

Can the Internet Survive Privacy

Bear Threat © by Mrs. Gemstone
Lately some have been suggesting that the internet is at risk. Much if not all of the hoopla stems from a recent interview with Sergey Brin from Google (GOOG). Brin says the biggest threats come from government crackdowns, attempts to control piracy, and “the rise of ‘restrictive’ walled gardens such as Facebook and Apple, which tightly control what software can be released on their platforms.”

If you look at the arguments, they essentially break down to “If Google can’t spy on your every behavior, then the internet will collapse.” This is because all information in applications that aren’t web-based can’t be crawled by web crawlers, and user behavior inside the application also cannot be monitored.

It sounds pretty ridiculous, when you think about it. People have been using applications for years on the desktop. Some of them are local to the desktop, others reach out and use the cloud (what we used to call the net, before that the internet, before that it was the network). Applications were, and continue to be a combination of proprietary software, commercial software, freeware, and other open-source models. What applications have usually NOT been on the desktop is ad-supported.

Much of the web has evolved itself into an old broadcast style model, IE advertising supports content. I know some will argue that the web “changes everything”, but think about it. The idea of having to put up with adds to get your news fix is nothing new at all. This is an old argument, is it better to have “free” content supported by ads, or paid content without advertising. In the modern era, we go beyond simple advertising as well. In addition to the cost of having to look at ads, people are giving up their privacy and allow advertisers to monitor their behavior. The rationalization is that this is saving them some money.

Again, it’s an old argument that is not going to be settled here, and I suspect won’t be settled at all. I prefer a world where you can choose whether or not you want ads, and pay for the content you get, or deal with advertising. Let the consumer choose. Personally, I don’t mind paying for software and content, like Netflix over Hulu. I prefer that over dealing with ads, even before the whole privacy issue came into play. But others feel differently and I don’t have a problem with that as long as I’m not forced down the same path.

What Brin is really saying is “If Google can’t spy on you, then advertising breaks down, and without advertising, the internet breaks down.” I don’t buy it. At all. If suddenly all advertising centric services were forced to simply serve up ads without regard to my exact movements, it would definitely have an affect on the bottom line of those serving up the ads. But advertising would go on. Don’t believe me? Turn on your television… see any advertising? Do they know who you are? Do they know what channel you just watched? Do they know that you called your mom during the show? Nope, and they don’t care. Actually they DO care, they’d love to have that information about you. But in absence of having the information, life goes on.

Google tries to obfuscates the issue by saying they’re against “Walled Gardens”. Of course they never address the issue that all traditional computing is “walled” in the sense that Google has no idea what you’re doing. But somehow that’s OK, while if use the same software on a tablet, it means death for the Internet. Ridiculous. There is in fact a considerable disagreement over whether Google themselves have a walled garden.

What it really means is that if strong privacy protections are put in place, Google will have to change or it will collapse, because they have no edge in selling ads over anyone else. That I believe.

Google and Motorola – What Will Googorola Do?

In case you haven’t followed any tech industry news in the last several days – Google (GOOG) and Motorola Mobility (MMI) have agreed on an acquisition to the tune of .5 billion. Some are calling them Motoroogle, but I prefer Googorola, especially since Google is the one doing the buying – their name should come first.

This is a pretty big step for a company like Google that is essentially a software play. Naturally people are asking what’s it all about. In order to figure out what may come out of this we need to try to understand why Google would buy a mobile hardware company. Unfortunately, the truth is there is no way to really know what Google was thinking. There are a couple of prevailing theories.

Patent Protection

One is that Google sees this as a way to protect Android intellectual property against patent suits, especially from Apple (AAPL) and Microsoft (MSFT). Larry Page mentioned this in the Official Google Blog on Monday. Many pundits and analysts have lined up behind this theory. In fact it was mentioned by almost every single android manufacturer.

End-to-end Production

The other popular theory is that Google wants to be able to reproduce the capability of full ecosystem offerings like phones from Apple, Rim, and HP. This gives Google the chance to control the hardware, software, user-interface, and in short the complete user experience. This is a straight-on attempt to duplicate the popularity of the iPhone.

Analysis

While I have to agree that the patent protection side is at least part of the reasoning, I am doubtful that it’s the only reason. Recall that during the recent hissy fit between Google and Microsoft re the Nortel patents, it came out that Google had the chance to be part of the winning consortium, but choose against it. Google claimed that it was smoke and mirrors on the part of Microsoft, since if it was part of the group it couldn’t use the patents to protect against a lawsuit by the co-owners of the patents. However, it’s undeniable that they also couldn’t be sued by the co-owners of the patents over the same said patents. Clearly they were after something other than just protecting Android.

In addition, Apple has been moving forward in their suit against Motorola. Florian Mueller has discussed this in depth over at Foss Patents. Obviously if Motorola can’t protect themselves from suits by Apple, they can’t protect Google and Android either.

This leads us to the other alternative – Google wants to build phones. This will be clear to all soon enough. Either Google will divest themselves of the phone-building part of Motorola, while keeping control of the patents, or… they will start building phones. If they divest, then what they claimed was all they’re after, and you can quit reading now. But the interesting part is what happens if they do start building phones.

One can’t deny that Google hasn’t gotten a lot of traction with their Nexus phones. On the other hand, the iPhone is the single most-popular smartphone out there. Anyone who wishes to seriously compete with them needs to take a serious look and try to understand how they’re succeeding. Leaving conspiracy theories about fan-boys etc aside, the conventional wisdom is that Apple’s ability to control the software and hardware gives them a serious edge in end-user experience. Let’s presume for a moment that this is at least part of why Google would spend such a premium on Motorola.

The question then is how does it all work? Google can isolate Motorola, run them as an independent company, and treat them on a level playing field with all other phone vendors. This is what Google is claiming so far. I don’t see it happening – if that’s the plan, why spend so much? This would essentially make it a pure patent play, and in that case the price was simply too high. More likely Google will feed Motorola first, possibly even giving them exclusive access to extra functionality. Given Motorola’s past success with popular phones from the RAZR to the DROID, I expect this could be a pretty big hit. It sounds very interesting to me.

End result then is the next step. What does it mean for android and android customers? Well, if you’re a Samsung or HTC phone fan, you might want to start checking out what Windows has to offer, because I expect both of them will be adding Windows to their stable. I don’t expect they’ll drop Android, but I won’t be surprised to see them pay less attention to it.

If you’re a Droid fan or Nexus fan, lookout. This could be a truly amazing set of phones coming from Google and Motorola working together in an unfragmented way. I’d be pretty happy right now if I was a Droid user.

As for Android itself, well it depends on how it all plays out. If Google starts competing with their hardware partners, then they will look for alternatives. Microsoft has a chance here to really make a great competitive offering at a great price. It might even end up being cheaper to license Windows than to pay royalties on Android. This could be the thing that they need to really finally get Windows Mobile off the ground. Android will survive as long as Google needs it and uses it, but it’s day’s of dominance in the mobile space may be numbered. Ironically, in an attempt to compete, Google may be strengthening a major competitor in Microsoft. Only time will tell.

[Update 2011-08-17]
One other possibility is that Googorola is interested in set-top boxes. It makes sense.
[/Update]

[Update 2011-09-29]
The Justice department is is asking for more info about the Motorola deal. This may or may not mean anything, depending on who you ask. Me, I’m not sure, but I don’t think it’s overly serious.
[/Update]

[Update 2011-10-06]
So Intellectual Ventures has filed a patent infringement suit against Motorola Mobility. Apparently Motorola’s patents can’t even defend themselves. So much for the “Google only wanted their patents” theories.
[/Update]

[Update 2016-03-12 – Google has long since spun Motorola back out – so their IP play didn’t really work and they never really leveraged the hardware capabilities of Motorola]

Account Security and Gmail

Given the recent rash of web break-ins I thought it would be interesting to talk about personal security. Here are some steps you can take to keep yourself secure. The basics of course are simple things, IE use good passwords that are at least 8 characters, are combinations of upper and lowercase letters, contain special symbols and numbers. Make the password as long as the site will allow and you can reasonably remember.

Another simple basic is to not use the same password over and over again. For example, when Sony was hacked back in June, a lot of people had their usernames and passwords published on the internet. If you use the same name and password everywhere, it’s just a matter of time before someone hacks one of those sites and you’re compromised. Take the effort and do something unique for each site to keep yourself safe.

I was recently playing with Gmail, which I haven’t used much until lately. As I was setting up my account, I noticed they have a two-step authentication option. You should be able to see this on your settings page. If it’s not there, it’s probably because you’re using Google Apps and you need to talk to your domain administrator – it’s worth it.

So if you set this up, it basically does a phone text or voice message at the point when you try to login. For example, if I go to gmail.com and login, it will send a text message to my cell phone, and I get a unique code I need to login. I always have my phone, so it’s not inconvenient, and someone trying to get into my account needs to know my username, password, AND have my cellphone on them. At that point, I’ve got bigger problems.

Given the number of people who use gmail, this is probably something you can do yourself right now. Go ahead, give it a try. If you’re using other Google services, this can be critical. For example, the Foss Patents blog that I follow was shutdown because the author’s gmail was compromised. Using two-step authentication will help you avoid such problems.

What other simple tricks have you run into? Let me know.