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MapQuest has improved its search functions, but it has yet to match the flashier accessories of its major rivals. A few months ago, Google took over Keyhole, a digital program for manipulating satellite photos, and retooled it as part of Google Earth; one reviewer described the result as "MapQuest on steroids." The site allows the user to zoom in on landmarks or intersections, overlay and customize maps, get directions and more. Meanwhile, Amazon's A9.com is building an inventory of street-level photos of dozens of cities, while Microsoft and Yahoo are adding other visuals to enrich the mapping experience.
Greiner notes that MapQuest was the first mapping site to offer satellite photos; it removed them two years ago. "There wasn't as much usage as we thought there would be," he says. "It was kind of a whiz-bang curiosity satisfier. We plan on bringing it back, but we want to make sure it's useful."
Satellite imagery can be cumbersome for mapping purposes, even with the improved resolution Google has managed. The latest blog buzz has been for Microsoft's Windows Live Local, which provides bird's-eye views that are much more detailed than traditional satellite photos. Sterling calls it "the most impressive visual imagery available right now." Satellite photos don't help much when you're trying to find a particular address in a complex of look-alike apartment or office buildings; with the 45-degree angle provided by Windows, a user can mark her condo's location with a virtual pushpin, e-mail it to a friend with driving directions and provide a visual road map to her door.
But many of these new visuals aren't yet available for mid-sized cities (such as Denver) or more exotic locales. And while they may wow the tech-heads who beta-test them, their adoption in the larger marketplace is still up in the air. "There are a lot of products that get developed, and me-too responses, that may not have anything to do with actual consumer demand at this point," says Sterling. "It's just by virtue of the competitive landscape that it's happening."
According to Greiner, MapQuest is moving toward a more visual environment, too, but cautiously, so as not to confuse loyal users. "We're good at separating what's really useful and efficient versus what's eye candy or icing," he says.
Google and Yahoo have drawn attention by releasing map-programming code to hobbyists, allowing them to blend mapping functions with other kinds of data, known as "mash-ups." The bold move has led to all kinds of sites, commercial and personal: interactive real-estate guides; displays that show you the cheapest place in town to buy gas; recreation planners; even regularly updated, block-by-block crime blotters. Down the line, the concept has the potential of attracting massive amounts of local advertising, as various retailers or service providers fight to have their businesses highlighted on popular maps.
MapQuest, of course, already has licensing arrangements with hundreds of businesses that use its maps to show you how to get to their place. "Google has launched a free, very limited API [application programming interface]," Greiner says. "We plan on coming out with something to match and exceed what they're doing. But there are many restrictions on them. Who knows when Google is going to put advertising on them? Our business clients are high-enterprise -- for example, the hospitality and travel industry. They're fearful of Google having the control."
In fact, the commercialization of the maps themselves is well under way. Sterling points out that Google has already started embedding ads in some of its maps; if you search for New York City hotels, the sponsor's properties are highlighted with colorful pushpins on the resulting map. The analyst has even heard talk of digitally altering bird's-eye photos, replacing an existing billboard in a real-world landscape with a virtual ad from a cybersponsor.
"There are some very interesting legal issues that arise," Sterling says. "Who owns that? Is it something Microsoft owns because it's their copyrighted photography? Is it something the billboard company owns? Who knows?"
MapQuest executives don't believe the future of their industry hinges on 3-D graphics and other eye candy. It's about on-the-go personal navigation. No longer will people have to print out staid paper directions from their home or office computer before embarking on a trip; instead, they'll be engaged in a mapping adventure that evolves as the journey progresses.
"Where the market is going," says Greiner, "is from an online experience to an offline experience. You can use MapQuest on your cell phone today. In the future, you'll be able to use it to find places closest to you as you travel and navigate with it like an in-car map system. And that's just scratching the surface."
For a few dollars a month, you can send your driving directions from your computer to your cell phone, so that you can consult them as you travel -- a boon, presumably, to those who don't have access to a printer but wouldn't think of driving without a Nokia in hand. MapQuest also has a deal with Verizon to provide real-time traffic reports to its users' phones. The next step up from there relies on global positioning system technology: a GPS-enabled Nextel phone, or MapQuest's own $699 Personal Navigation Device, either of which can pinpoint your location, provide information on nearby attractions or shops, and offer turn-by-turn directions as you drive. Both services work much like General Motors' OnStar system, but with the distinct advantage of being transferable from car to car.