I was reminded of the appeal of mapping applications and programs last week while traveling in the United States. Normally, I don’t spend too much time away from my home base and have gotten pretty used to the tangle of streets that make up my local environment, but while on a recent business trip, I found myself missing my iPhone (which was sitting in a drawer at home — long story) for ready access to a decent mapping application. The days of Google Maps being the best available choice for planning a route in unknown territory appear to be over for me, and, judging by comScore’s recent MobiLens study, over for a lot more people besides.
The study found that with the figures from a three-month period ending with April 2010, more smartphone users accessed maps through applications than through browser use (26% versus 19%), the first time the percentages have been in this configuration. Obviously, the growth has been dependent upon the increasing availability of apps for maps over the past year and the general move by more people to owning smartphones over feature phones.
What is also interesting about the comScore data is the information presented on the frequency of use of mobile maps, compared year over year. Although the total audience has only increased by 1%, the frequency of use has greatly increased, with a 44% increase in the numbers reporting using a mobile-based map at least once per month, a 47% increase in those using one 1-3 times in a month, a 60% increase in those using a mobile map once per week, and a 9% increase in those reporting usage of almost every day. While using mobile maps, 87.2% reporting riding or driving a car, 17.2% while walking, running or walking, and 16.7% while using public transit.
There are a number of takeaways from the data, including the increasing appeal of apps as a means of accessing map information on a mobile device as opposed to browser-based systems. The explosion of app popularity is, of course, well-documented for all types of things. An app can be tailored to specific needs, and tasks within those needs, while most of the browser-based mapping programs fit a larger variety of goals. For example, the “street view” feature of Google Maps is less likely to appeal to someone driving down the street in question than a person doing research prior to their trip for what the street looks like so it’s recognizable when actually visited. At least I hope not too many users are cruising along with street view active comparing the actual view with the archived “street view” while actually operating a motor vehicle.
One thing that is apparent is the threat that increasing use of smartphones as mapping aids for those driving (remember that 87.2% of mobile users accessing maps reported doing so while driving or riding in a car) has for GPS devices. The sophistication of apps, including turn-by-turn directions and graphical maps in many cases, is bound to intrude upon the market up until now ruled by the GPS systems. Of course, this is symptomatic of a larger move toward a more integrated, expansive mobile computing experience overall where devices once seen as revolutionary in application are replaced by more sophisticated and powerful pieces of technology in a few short years. For me, anything that saves me from going the wrong way on a freeway and winding up 20 miles away from my destination with no good way of figuring out where I have finally wound up is a step forward — make it seamless, as safe as possible to use, constantly updated with the latest changes, affordable, and flexible and who can resist?