Yesterday, Google announced, via the Google Mobile Blog, a host of updates to Google Maps for its Android operating system, bringing some features up to par with Maps for the iPhone while bringing some all-new features to the table as well. With the iPhone 3G S hitting the pavement Friday and more smartphones and netbooks choosing Android as their OS of choice, a thorough navigation of the new features is in order.
One significant update to Android Maps is the addition of walking and public transit directions, helping pavement-pounders find the shortest possible pedestrian routes while also mapping the most effective routes by buses, trains and subways in more than 250 cities. But Maps for iPhone has included this feature for some time, so it was high time Android Maps leveled the playing field in this respect.
Android tips the scales in its favor, however, with Latitude, Google's real-time friend-finding app that plots other Latitude users' positions via Google Maps. Latitude was already supported on Android and Windows Mobile platforms, but the most recent Android update fixes some bugs, making the process of keeping tabs on everybody all the time slightly less tedious by ensuring that phones signed into Latitude never stop updating their locations. Taking Latitude a step further, the Android update includes an experimental social feature called Updates that allows users to post comments to their Latitude map locales. Latitude is in the works for the iPhone and iPod Touch, but for now Android Maps has the edge over its Apple counterpart.
The capstone of the Android update is the voice-command feature added to Google Maps. Users can search Maps by simply speaking an address or location into Android-equipped phones, making the cumbersome walk-and-type method of mapping/stumbling a thing of the past. The iPhone 3G S is voice capable—one of its key features is voice-activated calling and iPod controls—but earlier incarnations of the iPhone are not voice-command capable without the aid of third-party apps. Points again go to Android for making Maps, one of the handiest features of the modern smartphone, a bit more efficient to use.
But one aspect of the iPhone 3G S that most other phones cannot touch is the digital compass that is integrated into Maps for iPhone. The newest iPhone will know its orientation in space, and Google Maps will rotate on screen to match the actual direction the phone is facing, vastly simplifying navigation in unfamiliar settings. But Apple was not the first to mount a digital compass in its hardware. The T-Mobile G1, the first Android-powered phone, has a digital compass as well, and future Android-supported phones are sure to follow suit. Using the same technology, Android also supports the SkyMap app, available for free from the Android Market. SkyMap provides a real-time map of constellations and planets, showing you the relevant names and information when pointed at the sky. You can even tell it to search for a celestial body, and it will point you toward where Mars (for example) is at this moment.
The compass gives Apple a slight upper-hand in some respects, because most phones (the G1 notwithstanding) don't have it, and there's not telling when it might become more or less standard. That is, the iPhone 3G S holds a hardware advantage over most cell phones currently on the market. Most of Android's advantages, on the other hand, are software-related; the voice capable iPhone 3G S could support voice commands for Google Maps with the right software update, and Google is already developing Latitude for Apple products. So which Google Maps offering is superior? The answer seems to be Android. But that could certainly change at any moment.