Google Maps

  • Written by: Marko Samastur
  • Published on:
  • Category: Catchall

I was recently reading an otherwise decent article on mobile design when I got triggered by its admiration of Google Maps interface. As it happens we recently came back from our trip to Sicily where Google Maps was for the first time our primary navigation tool. Results were mixed, but all in all it is a remarkably mediocre product for something that was launched more than a decade ago and its interface contributed a lot to overall impression.

My biggest problem with Google Maps is that you can get stuck in an endless loop if you are in an unknown environment. I don't actually know how navigation apps calculate routes, but from my observations and being aware of shortest path problem it looks like full optimisation is done only for "nearby" destinations and around edges of routes to more distant ones. If your destination is far enough then it will fall-back to using main roads for most of your journey and god help you if one of them has a recently closed section.

When we were leaving Agrigento late in the evening we kept being rerouted to the same stretch of closed road. We finally "saved" ourselves by selecting an intermediate destination that formed large enough triangle with our final destination that once reached it was unlikely we would be driven back to by then very familiar blockade.

Now, Google obviously can't learn in advance for all roads when they will be closed. But for a company that prides itself on its machine learning/AI chops it could well notice when all these phones it is tracking stop going through some major route. Especially if they fail to take it after they are repeatedly guided through it.

Years ago I bought what was then practically the cheapest Garmin and one of its features I liked a lot was that it showed how fast I was driving and what the current speed limit was. It wasn't perfect as limits change more often than maps and I can understand why a company like Google prefers not to show that, but I still found current velocity useful as it was far more reliable than car's speedometer. In EU indicated speed must be between 100-110% of real one plus an allowance of additional 4km/h at specified test speeds which means you might be going only 80km/h when gauge is telling you 92km/h. Velocity calculated from averaged GPS positions is simply more reliable.

I am not a fast driver and I would not care much about this indicator if I could rely more on arrival time estimates. I clearly am not the kind of driver Google expects. This is most obvious on highways where I would need to drive close to speed limit to meet them and I can't because there is no reliable way to know how fast we are going. On most of our trips there simply are not enough mountain ascents to compensate for those "lost" minutes.

Generally Google Maps assumes options would only unduly burden our feeble minds so it either hides or completely removes them. There are often no alternatives to routes and certainly not once one is selected. The only possible reason to use navigation, it seems, is to get to your destination as quickly as possible and prepare to suffer trying to persuade the app to take a less direct scenic road. When you get to your destination, it will consider its job done and without confirmation stop navigating even if you haven't actually spotted it yet or will need to park somewhere else.

Its limited flexibility and customisability can be infuriating. You don't like the voice used in navigation? Change system wide language settings. Is it too chatty? Turn off or put up. Would you like to go to a previously entered destination? Can't do if you don't also store this information on Google's servers.

When Google Maps was launched, it had a very vivid palette which was later watered down to more pleasingly looking pastels that are also harder to discern, especially in non-ideal conditions such as on a phone in a car on a very sunny day. Most of the time it is fine, but night colours are just obtuse. Who thought that grey, blue and black form a high enough contrast in context where I can reasonably afford only glances at a relatively small screen?

And speaking of night-time colour palette. Why does it switch on immediately after sunset? My phone is more than happy to adjust screen brightness based on brightness of its surrounding, so why does it not use that same sensor to decide when it is actually dark enough to switch colours? Of course you can't change colours either.

In a way it feels petty to spend so many words complaining about something which in its essence I still find remarkable. The fact that you can navigate your way around this planet using a small, relatively affordable gadget with often current traffic updates is astonishing.

But it is not singular and has not been even before Google Maps was launched. While it is adding new things it is failing many common, if not basic, requirements that were implemented by its less moneyed competitors years ago. Many of these limitations are clearly self-serving. For example there really is no good technical reason for not storing locally previously visited locations. Its offline mode is also limited both in maximum covered area size and (complete?) lack of navigation features. Feasibility of both has, again, been amply demonstrated years ago by others on much more constrained devices.

Constraints are also not financial as implementing and supporting these features on a couple of platforms pales in comparison with resources needed to continuously map and photograph this planet. They are not there because they would be expensive. They are missing because what Google wants is a paternalistic relationship where you regularly feed the beast with new data. And you do that by being tethered to their servers, storing on them even information that doesn't need to be there and responding positively to almost constant nagging to provide pictures of your current location.

Few products achieve perfection. Most have to settle on a compromise between what is currently feasible, desired by users and required by company. Judging them by some unattainable ideal would be absurd, but Google Maps, while doubtlessly useful, still comes up short.