Tuesday, February 08, 2005

Google Maps

Today Google announced yet another new service, Google Maps. So, another innovative product from Google Labs? Hard to tell,

The new Google Maps service failing to even start up in Safari, and yes I did check. If you ignore the warning and click through, it really doesn't work, they aren't kidding.

I was half tempted to give up. When Google decides to be incompatible, they're usually very incompatible indeed. After all what can be interesting about a map service? They've been beaten to death. What could be so special about this new one from Google to make it worth firing up a different browser?

None the less I went ahead and fired up Camino to have a look anyway. My immediate impression was that that they were missing a few continents, my second impression was that it was fast, my third impression was that it was really fast.

Most map services usually have dreadful interfaces. They're also slow, really slow. The "best" interface I've come across is probably Map 24 which uses a Java applet to present it's maps. Unfortunately, for me at least, it runs so slowly as to make it almost totally unusable, and the maps it produces are also pretty hard to read. The best UK maps, again only my opinon, are probably produced by the Streetmap service. But while the maps themselves are exellent, and the service relatively quick, the interface is so unusable it's hard to get at the results. For instance, in browsers other than Internet Explorer, the zoom functions are pretty much broken...

However Google has obviously leveraged the work it did on Google Suggest and XMLHttpRequest to produce a fighteningly quick draggable map interface. Unlike the more traditional services, where maps are served statically as images, the vectorized maps are easily dragged around the screen, and at a much faster speed than the only other service I know of to offer this sort of interface.

The new Google Maps service, looking for pizza placces in Hilo, Hawaii, running in the "unsupported" Camino browser. Camino embeds the Mozilla layout engine Gecko beneath a Mac OS X native Cocoa user interface, so perhaps it's unsurprising that it works out of the box where Safari fails.

The really interesting thing about the service is integration however, the new map service is just another interface into the massive backend Google database and Google Local. So to find a pizza place in Hilo simply type in "Pizza in Hilo Hawaii", and you'll map gets annotated with the locations of nearby pizza places.

The direction service is similar enhanced, I especially like the popup windows which give you help on "difficult" junctions...

Of course it's all rather frustrating, because while I travel there a lot, I don't live in the States. So I'm stuck with poorer implementations, and less integration. So maybe I shouldn't have bothered after all. Anyway, take the tour and decide for yourself, it'll even work in Safari so you can find out what you're missing...

Update: Matt Croydon made a good point about directions. If the directions don't print well, they aren't much use. The best, and I really do mean best, driving directions in the UK used to come from the AA, but they've "updated" their service and they now don't offer printable directions. So I no longer use their route planner...

Update: They have just updated the service to work with Safari...

Update: Google have just integrated satellite imagery into their Google Maps service.

Update: Living in the UK I don't get much chance to use Google Maps, but every so often the service is useful...