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March 30, 2009
What’s on the Horizon for Online Mapping Portals and Mobile Navigation
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Susan Smith - Managing Editor

by Susan Smith - Managing Editor
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Industry News

What’s on the Horizon for Online Mapping Portals and Mobile Navigation

By Susan Smith

click to enlarge [
London-based ABI Research delivers research reports about aspects of the geospatial industry, covering the entire range of location based systems and applications, personal navigation devices (PNDs), factory installed embedded navigation solutions as well as consumer telematics, precision GPS systems and online mapping portals. Online mapping portals such as Google Maps and Mapquest, plus many smaller ones, were covered in a recent study because they are increasingly connected to the mobile navigation device trend. According to this report, the current global number of 300 million unique visitors to these two portals is expected to grow at an annual rate of 15% in the coming years.

ABI Research practice director for telematics and navigation, Dominique Bonte, said many people may think everybody has navigation on his/her mobile phone or has a personal navigation device built in to the car, so why would they go to these online mapping sites on their computers to look for directions, then print the directions and keep the direction in the car?

“Although that’s still a use case, what I found is that most of the sites are very quickly evolving towards companion sites for your mobile navigation system, where after you’ve planned your trip days ahead, you can look at the trip, the traffic, and finally download to your mobile navigation device, which is much easier than having to look for destinations on your device,” explained Bonte. Typically mobile devices don’t have the same facility as computers to enter destinations and other important data. More importantly, Bonte added that these sites are very quickly evolving from offering solely traditional directions to expanding their scope to include such offerings as real
time traffic information.

“If you go to Google Maps or Mapquest and type in any major cities in the U.S., you see color codes which indicate what the level of traffic is on the major highways and arteries,” noted Bonte. “For many people, this is also about making these sites into central repositories of their favorite destinations, so they can look for destinations, store them and then access this information either from a computer or via a navigation device. The whole point is that MapQuest and Google Maps have gone a long way to enhance these sites. In fact, the number of unique visitors of these sites is still growing by about 10 percent.”

Back to the original question: this may still strange because everyone has a personal navigation device, so why would they still use these sites? Bonte believes this represents almost a “comeback” of the online mapping portals. It demonstrates that people still prefer to plan their trips in the comfort of their home or office, in front of a desktop or a laptop. In the U.S., Mapquest is the number one online mapping portal with 40 million unique visitors, which has been around for the longest time. It has recently launched some new features: mobile applications, local servers and navigation applications that integrate seamlessly with their own online mapping portal. On the other
hand, Google Maps is positioned with StreetView maps and very dynamic 3D information, yet Mapquest maintains its #1 position in the marketplace. ABI Research anticipates that Google Maps will “catch up” in 2009.

Tom Tom and Nokia offer online route planners and also have announced online mapping portals similar to those of Mapquest and Google Maps. One advantage Bonte sees with these PND companies is that they can achieve better integration between their online portals and their mobile navigation products. Additional services they can offer may include not just downloading destinations but also downloading updates of your maps or other activities you can do via the portal. However, it will be some time before consumers will shift to using these types of navigation portals in lieu of Google Maps and Mapquest, according to Bonte.

“Where Google is strong is with their photographic details, such as StreetView, 360 degrees of wherever you want to go, so you can check out the area before you get there. In fact, it’s available on Google Maps for mobile, the problem is, of course, that you have to download all these photos,” said Bonte. “You need a very good data connection and you’re going to pay a lot for that, and it’s slow still.”

In two or three years, however, possibly the maps will be stored locally on the device and these features will become standard on mobile devices, due to public demand.

“It’s going to be important to have enough processing power in your device to cope with all that satellite or aerial imagery you’ll have on your mobile device,” Bonte said. “You could say the boundaries of the desktop environment and mobile environment are going become blurred. Anything you can do on your desktop you can do on your mobile and vice versa. With the same resolution and speed, people will be able to access anything from any device.”

PND Sales Dropping

Another contributing factor to the continued popularity of Mapquest and Google Maps may be the fact that PND sales are dropping, particularly in Europe, according to another ABI Research report.

This is a striking change from the marketplace at the end of 2007. Bonte pointed out that at that time, “PNDs were selling like crazy, growth rates were more than 100%, LBS started to grow also, everybody thought this is it, the whole world is going to use nav devices, and maps were considered the basic building blocks. That’s why Nokia and Tom Tom decided to buy them because there was the idea in the market that if you didn’t own the maps you would lose out in the end. One year down the road, Garmin must have been very happy they didn’t purchase TeleAtlas. They know you don’t have to own the map to be successful. Garmin is using NAVTEQ, Nokia is very keen to sell NAVTEQ maps
to other parties, they want to recuperate some of that investment.”

The benefits to owning the mapping data remains to be seen.

Crowd Sourcing

In a changing world, people will not always be accessing directions and location based content in their vehicles, but may be walking or taking public transportation due to the cost of fuel and a changing infrastructure to accommodate conservation of natural resources. Traditional road maps and street maps will certainly still be in use, but there will be an increasing demand for more “crowd sourcing” information, very localized information gathered by consumers about local happenings, whether it be an event, a road closing, restaurant menus, prices, all available on a PND or mobile device. The detailed information gathered by companies such as Tom Tom, Nokia and particularly Google
with its enormous customer base, will become a valuable commodity in the race for marketshare.

Offboard Navigation

Other possibilities for navigation include offboard navigation, which is a client running on the phone, with all the intelligence in a server hosted by the carrier. Verizon Navigator, TeleNav and Networks in Motion are examples of this type of service, where your route is calculated on the server, not on your device locally, with the phone serving only as a display device. “Many offboard providers have had their own online portals for many years,” said Bonte. People can do their planning on a desktop then send the results to their mobile phones.


These types of offerings will continue to have the effect of blurring the boundaries between fixed and mobile computing systems. In the meantime, however, Mapquest and Google Maps will maintain their competitive edge on the desktop or laptop, and likely will extend their success to mobile in the coming years.

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-- Susan Smith, GISCafe.com Managing Editor.