Do you remember the last time you rolled down the window of your car and asked for directions? Well, I can’t. If you still bother an auto-rickshaw driver or a pan vendor on the roadside, then you are just not abreast with the times. For one of the biggest technological advancements of our times has been real-time maps on our handsets and how we use them to plan everything—from travel time to what to do at a destination. Many of us are no longer completely lost in foreign lands, because we have recced where we are going and done a Street View tour of the location even before landing there.
While Google Maps has been around for over a decade, it is only in the past year or so that it started becoming more ‘Indian’. It now understands Hindi and offers turn-by-turn directions in the same language. It has a very Indian voice and accent that no longer pronounces ‘marg’ as ‘marge’. All this has helped make Google Maps accessible to a wider audience, given that most Indians have the facility on their phones already, thanks to the grip Android has on our market.
Sanket Gupta, product manager, Google Maps, says India is a focus area for Google and Maps is no different. “In the last ten years, we have made a lot of progress. Maps are ever changing and our vision is to create comprehensive, accurate and reliable maps for everyone across the world.”
However, India is tricky, given that we don’t have a great map culture. Even when new technologies like satellite maps came in, we were not that fast to open up. There are still dark spots in most satellite maps of India, and we have not yet given permission for Google Street View. But there are challenges even from a cartographic point of view. “In India, we use landmark-based directions, as not all streets have names and there is also a lack of signboards. In the absence of signboards, Google Maps offers these local landmarks for users to understand where they are,” says Gupta, adding that the feature has since been adopted in other parts of the world too.
You must have noticed a lot of taxi drivers now use a smartphone to reach you or find a destination which they might not be otherwise familiar with; it is because Google Maps has been able to breach the language barrier with Hindi voice search. “Not everyone speaks in English and that is why we have voice search as well as directions in Hindi,” Gupta adds. Another feature that works for Indian audience is offline maps with turn-by-turn directions, given that our networks are not really dependable, especially when you are on the move. Maps on apps have also taken their toll on standalone navigation devices which are slowly losing ground.
It is not unusual these days for someone to tell you that it is better to take a longer route as the shortest one is all jammed up. That is because Google Maps now offers traffic alerts, with the red bands signifying that vehicles are moving at a crawl, which is almost always in cities like Delhi and Bangalore. However, this feature, along with estimated time of arrival, lets you take informed decisions.
Interestingly, this data is collated by Google based on how fast somebody—who is using the maps app or location data in the stretch—is moving. So for every person who avoids a jam, there are many who are already stuck and helping you avoid the clogged route.
Thankfully, Google Maps is not limited to Android devices and can be used on iOS phones too. For the dwindling tribe of Windows Phone users, there are third party apps that offer somewhat similar features. Bing Maps does a decent job, or you could opt for Waze which is one of the better options for users across platforms.
Of late, Apple Maps has become better for Indian users, but it still does not have the kind of rich data it offers in the US or even China. For instance, there are street names, but no establishments are mapped in my locality. However, with Apple slowly turning its focus on India, we can be rest assured that they too will offer much more in terms of maps data. It will be tough for Indians to get lost on the road.