Google Maps is losing its identity


I love maps. I have for as long as I can remember – won my middle school geography bee three years in a row. I’m the kind of person who has serious opinions about which map projections are optimal in specific cases, and will defend them with vigor. As such, I’ve been a huge fan of Google Maps. I can literally spend hours just browsing my way around the globe, soaking it all in. Sure, there have been online maps before it, but the combination of its highly functional user interface and vast quantities of high-quality data won me over straight away.

So, when I heard news last week of some big game-changing update for the Google Maps app, I approached with caution. After all, Google has a nasty habit of killing the things I like (it’s still too soon to talk about the loss of Reader), so I wanted to be sure that this grand overhaul wouldn’t come at too high a cost.

I’m glad I didn’t blindly accept that update, because sure enough, the details reveal a number of casualties. I realize that changes to Maps have been an ongoing, gradual process, and last week’s update is just the latest in this long string of steps that have been dragging the service further away from its roots, but I’m still upset: with every release, it feels like Google Maps is becoming less and less about… well, maps.

Red Flag

cacheThe first indication I got that something bad was happening to Maps was from these bizarre hoops users had to go through in order to cache offline map data. Instead of a nice, formal feature like it had been, users would have to enter “OK Maps” into the app’s search box to trigger some hidden caching functionality.

What. The. HELL. Google? This would be akin to releasing a new version of Chrome for the desktop, removing all traces of any UI for printing out copies of web pages, and expecting users to type “Go, go, Chrome print mode please” into the browser’s address bar.

It would be bad enough to fully kill off an extremely useful feature like that (for what’s more important with maps than actually having access to that map data when you need it) but this half-assed obscuring of it was just nonsensical.

Yes, Google quickly dropped an update that did, in fact, introduce a button to help formalize this process, but there should have never been an edition that forced users to enter “OK Maps” every time they wanted to cache something in the first place – that’s clown shoes – and Google’s treatment of the change makes it clear that features like this simply aren’t a priority.

Everything Is Flat

Caching isn’t even the big deal for me, though. Google had the temerity to unceremoniously rip the terrain view clear out of the app. That’s just mean, man.

contourI’m sure a lot of you never even used terrain view, and if you mainly drive a car or truck, I can understand that. Me, I either ride a motorcycle, bicycle, or walk, so elevation changes matter very much during my route planning. So much so, in fact, that I always check the terrain map when heading into unknown territory, since elevation changes are factors that Google seems to wholly ignore when automatically generating directions.

Losing the measure feature is just as bad – no matter how lousy you were at reading detailed terrain data, sometimes it was nice just to be able to measure a simple A to B: how far, and what ultimate change in elevation?

As far as I’ve heard, there’s no indication that terrain view is coming back. Maybe there will be a new feature someday that takes elevation measurements into consideration, but it really feels like the good old days of browsable contour maps may be behind us.

The New “Maps”

More than any other change, killing the terrain view screams to me, “Google does not care about maps in Maps.”

And certainly, the spirit of last week’s release was very much NOT about maps. It was about look-and-feel. It was about helping you discover local businesses. It brought you streamlined restaurant reviews at-a-glance. But when it came to providing the meat and potatoes – the titular maps – it ended up lacking.

At the very top of this editorial, I included the first two images Google used to announce this new version of Maps on its Lat Long blog. As should be very telling, neither shows even a hint of a map.

I get it: this is all part of Google’s ongoing efforts to integrate itself further and further into our lives. Google doesn’t want you reading a map yourself and making your own decisions about the best routes – it just wants you to ask it to plan the route for you. Google doesn’t want you searching for magazine articles about hot new restaurants – it wants you to ask it directly for recommendations.

That’s all fine. I mean, with a free service, you have to take what you get, and we can always elect to stop using Google apps and services if they evolve into things we don’t want.

I’m just saying, if you call it “Maps,” shouldn’t that be the focus, and all this other stuff secondary? It can be both, sure, but I’m never going to be happy seeing all this fluff added at the expense of actual maps.

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About The Author
Stephen Schenck
Stephen has been writing about electronics since 2008, which only serves to frustrate him that he waited so long to combine his love of gadgets and his degree in writing. In his spare time, he collects console and arcade game hardware, is a motorcycle enthusiast, and enjoys trapping blue crabs. Stephen's first mobile device was a 624 MHz Dell Axim X30, which he's convinced is still a viable platform. Stephen longs for a market where phones are sold independently of service, and bandwidth is cheap and plentiful; he's not holding his breath. In the meantime, he devours smartphone news and tries to sort out the juicy bits Read more about Stephen Schenck!