Saturday, September 25, 2010

The Mobile Navigator

The Google maps app for mobile leaves you with no excuses for getting lost.
Stuck in a train which just refused to reach Delhi, I started fiddling with the apps on my Nokia E63. Curious to know where I was, I switched on the Google Maps app which I had downloaded recently. My phone doesn’t have GPS and I was definitely not near a city from what I saw through the blue glass windows, yet the app plotted my exact location on the map — I was 20 km from Aligarh. As my fellow passengers tried to figure out where we had been stuck for the past two hours, I chipped in with my gyan, much to their surprise.
But the Google Maps app for mobile phones can get you far more than some brownie points on a forgotten Indian Railways express train. For instance, users in Delhi can get the app to show them how to get from Point A to Point B by the Metro. Along with telling you how much the journey will cost and how long it will take, the app also uses your location to direct you to the nearest Metro station. Sadly, I could not get the app to work in Kolkata, the other Indian city with a Metro network, or Mumbai which prides itself on its local train system. 
The app will, however, tell you road directions for anywhere in India. It plots the route on a map and gives you directions for the entire journey, telling you where to turn or which overbridge to take. In the big cities, it automatically factors in the traffic delays and tells you how long it will take to reach the destination—the accuracy of this feature is debatable though. It can also plot alternative routes, in case you are stuck in a traffic jam. As a third option, you also get to know the shortest walking route with detailed directions.
In phones with built-in GPS, the Google app can give other navigation devices a run for their money, with its voice output that reads out directions. As default the app shows locations on a map, you also have the option of switching to satellite view.
But the best feature of the app for me was its ‘My Location’ technology which shows where you are on a map using the nearest cell phone towers. This was correct to a few metres every time I checked, even in interior Uttar Pradesh and Jharkhand.
The app lets you use keys on your phone to zoom in on the map and find businesses that have been tagged, but there are not many tagged in Indian cities for now. In the US, the app can plot all the nearby restaurants and even pop up their contact details. In India, you can use the ‘Layers’ feature to see important marking on the map like airports, transit lines and so on.
Google Latitude, which lets you log in to your Google account and tell the world where you are at any given point of time, is also a part of the app. However, it is best left switched off in order to avoid embarrassing situations.
While the features available depend on the phone OS and your location, most basics are available on all phones. The good thing about this app, which is free like other apps from Google, is that you don’t actually need a smart phone to get it going. It works like a dream on cheaper phones too, provided you have a GPRS or WAP connection.
So, you don’t have an excuse for getting lost any more.

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