Do You Know The Way To San Jose (With Your Smartphone)?

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I used to spend time looking up directions via Google Maps before I had to travel somewhere I hadn’t been before, usually printing out the directions to use in place of my pretty much useless large map of the city. Then I would keep the pages handy as I drove to the location, following the turn-by-turn directions and trying to keep my eyes on the road at the same time. An improvement over my previous large map, but still somewhat dangerous and pretty clunky. Now, however, until I can upgrade my car to a newer model, I have a GPS that sends me on my way (sometimes with some strange side turns) and swears at me (“recalculating”) when I make a wrong turn or deliberately ignore its directions.

But I’m still woefully behind the times. According to a comScore study of US mobile users, 48 million of them accessed maps on their phones in May 2011, which is an increase of almost 40% from last year at that time. At the same time, “fixed-Internet” users (love that term!) — those accessing the Internet from actual computers at home or business — fell slightly (off 2%) over the year. The power of apps is evident in this use, with almost all (98%) of those using maps on the mobile platform using an app, while just under half (49%) used a mobile browser.

The study also looked at the places from which users accessed these maps and not surprisingly, 88.9% were driving or riding in a car at the time. The most popular format was the graphical map with turn-by-turn directions (64%), although nearly half said they had used ones without turn-by-turn or directions without a graphical map. This may have more to do with the type of app they had chosen to use (or had access to) than actual preference for format, however. It’s difficult to argue against a preference for turn-by-turn directions that allow you to fully concentrate on your driving instead of switching view from road to map and back, as long as the direction-giver is not too intrusive/annoying.

This study illustrates a couple of things, in addition to the actual fact of the increasing use of maps on the mobile platform. Chief among these is the speed of adoption of the smartphone itself as an integral part of daily life and the potential speed of change in preferred technology. If the barrier to purchase is relatively low (an app for your smartphone versus an upgrade to a car with built-in GPS mapping application), people will very quickly make the switch from a physical GPS unit that has to be set up in their car with each trip. I wonder how many GPS units are gathering dust in drawers this year compared to last? And users are fickle — they want results now, while they think of the destination, not when they get home from work.

I also suspect that the relative flattening of fixed-Internet map use, rather than a steep decline showing up, has more to do with relative smartphone adoption than choice. If all areas of the US had the same level of good access to reliable signals, I would expect to have seen the shift to mobile for mapping to have been even more significant. Technology may move ahead at its own frenetic pace, but it does so unequally, and that must be considered in any broad statements about what appears to be based on choice.

Still, one can’t deny the incredible growth of the mobile platform over the past year and the incandescent atmosphere of competition for audience by those developing applications for it. Watching this market settle out will be a wild ride, indeed.

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