HALIFAX, NOVA SCOTIA — In the early weeks of 2005, there seems to be some interesting competition arising over the best way to get surfers from Point A to Point B when they leave their desks out there in the real world.
Online maps have been around for years, of course. MapQuest is a standard destination for people looking for directions, while TerraServer offers detailed satellite photographs of any location in the contiguous United States. Recently, however, two fairly heavy hitters have added their own ideas to the field of online navigation, and while both are still works-in-progress, both deserve some scrutiny - perhaps as much for what they may become as for what they are at the moment.
The first of these two high-profile additions to the Web (officially launched January 27) is a new feature added to Amazon.com's A9 search engine. In addition to the standard phone, address, and detailed listings common to similar business search queries, and a MapQuest thumbnail for geographic orientation, the A9 Yellow Pages also coordinates a collection of more than 20 million - so far - photographs in order to allow surfers to virtually walk up and down the streets of 10 major US cities. (If your desired location is in a city that hasn't been photographed yet, A9 will still return proximity based listings and cartography compliments of MapQuest. Meanwhile, the process of recording more cities is ongoing.)
Called "Block View" by Amazon, this feature enhances every possible search return with a photograph of the business' storefront, along with a series of thumbnails of adjacent addresses directly below. Clicking on the main image generates a full-size photograph in a popup window, while the thumbnails -or left and right arrow buttons at the top of the Block View frame- allow visitors to visually explore the areas surrounding a chosen destination.
Getting to these images is standard search engine procedure - with one extra step. First, you have to enter a city and state (or a complete address if you wish) to establish your base of operations, and then enter a subject, say, "computers," into a different text box at the left of the screen. After a few seconds, you're presented with an index of alternatives (closest to your location listed first) and a MapQuest chart superimposed with the listings' locations.
Select a link, and Amazon loads a new page for that entry, complete with standard information and the Block View interface - but not, amazingly, a direct link to an operation's own website when one exists. (I could see from the Block View picture that the Boston Red Sox Official Souvenir Store's URL was thesouvenirstore.com, but I had to key it in myself to get there. Most businesses will require a side trip to A9's or another search engine to translate a store's Block View address to a web address.)
An even newer kid on the block (February 8), but one likely to generate even more interest is the latest jaw dropper from Google - Google Maps. If you're familiar with MapQuest or Yahoo! Maps, the services all share many of the same features, with pan and zoom controls and the ability to generate directions to get from one point to another. Google has added elegance to the functionality.
The immediately obvious difference for anyone who has used the other apps will be the fact that Google Maps offers live scrolling and zooming (no clicking a button and waiting for a new map to load, and again, and again, and again). As soon as you've seen it live, it will be hard to go back to click and wait, and both the scrolling and zooming are amazingly fast and smooth. (You can also use your keyboard's arrow keys for scrolling, and + and - keys to control the zoom.)
Like the A9/Mapquest partnership, GoogleMaps can also designate businesses (or anything or anybody with an address online) in relation to your home or any other address you choose to enter into the appropriate search box. You can also simply enter a query like "transmission repair in Boston" and harvest a list of locations.
(As for Google's example of "the surprising omission," well, if you perform a Local Search through the main Google page, results are not presented via Google Maps, but rather through a more conventional, MapQuest-style interface.)
Back at GMaps, and comparable to MapQuest's listing-linked map markers, Google offers numbered "push pins" (complete with unnecessary but stylish drop shadows), which generate popup information balloons on mouseover. (Balloons which do include direct links to the target's website.) A list of query results is arranged down the right of the screen, and if you click on a listing that isn't in the map's frame, the image autoscrolls to bring it front and center.
Google's implementation of driving directions is also impressive. Enter your To and From into the text boxes, and it not only presents a full map with a step-by-step list of navigational instructions, but if you click on any of the waypoints, you'll get a smaller scale map with a closer look at the specific intersection. Google isn't exclusive here. Yahoo Maps, for example, can load a new page with a series of turn-by-turn maps tacked onto the bottom of the screen, but Google wins for refined design - and the lack of screen real estate given over to advertising makes for a much cleaner look.
In my own poking around, I found that, even though my home town of Halifax, Nova Scotia hasn't yet been included in the cartographic end of Google Maps - it seems that I presently live in a sea of blank atlas grids - the driving directions nevertheless gave me a complete turn-by-turn set of directions from my front door to a random address in Los Angeles - with full map services as soon as I crossed into the areas currently charted by the program.
Like the A9 Yellow Pages, Google Maps is a beta, and in addition to uneven coverage above the 49th parallel, there are some other quirks, including the fact that it doesn't always draw the most direct route between two points. (Though this is hardly a unique phenomenon.) At this point both services have a high gee whiz factor, but are, it must be admitted, of debatable practical use.
Do I need to see a picture of a storefront in order to find my way there? Do online maps have any navigational advantages over paper - other than the fact that you don't have to fold them back up when you're done? Still, the beta/new technology aspect of both sites does add some interesting questions about where these ideas might eventually lead.
What if Google Maps results automatically linked to all available area photographs, or could instantly superimpose satellite or aerial imagery in a form similar to some Multimap charts? More entertaining perhaps, but not necessarily more useful. On demand virtual tours of apartments within a given radius, complete with Flickr or A9-style photo collections of the surrounding neighborhoods? Definitely a time-saver, but hardly indispensable.
For either of these services to ever become as central to the web as their host sites are, there probably needs to be some unforeseen evolution or flash of brilliance that puts the information and/or its delivery into an entirely new context. (Who would have thought that in the simple loom were the technological seeds to computers - or that ARPANET would lead to eBay?) But whether or not these new sites ever become essential, they're already entertaining.