Caught Mapping

How MapQuest helps the lost generation find itself.

"Two or three years from now, when everyone has GPS-enabled phones, you'll be able to use MapQuest in new ways," Greiner says. "You'll put your phone on the dash, and a voice will speak to you and tell you what turns to take."

Wireless is the next big battleground for the mapping rivals. "MapQuest is probably a little ahead of the curve on wireless, and they're focused on that intensely," says Sterling. "It's definitely an area of opportunity and growth. However, it's much more complicated than the Internet. You've got different interests -- carriers, handset manufacturers, content providers, consumers. You've got a bunch of moving parts, and it's challenging to figure out how they work together."

Although he's been captivated by the "flashier" online mapping features, Sterling isn't sure whether he would plunge into personal navigation on his cell phone. "I don't know if, on my little Sprint Sanyo phone, those mapping tools are all that meaningful to me," he says. "The networks are too slow. My screen isn't big enough."

His skepticism begs a larger question. Just how many people are standing in line for MapQuest's "Find Me" service, which allows them to consult their Nextel phone in order to figure out where the hell they are? How many amnesiacs, blackout drunks, errant hikers and blind kidnap victims can there be wandering the country, with no notion of their actual location? How many truly need a GPS-enabled phone and MapQuest's proprietary algorithms to, as the website explains, "identify your location and share it with trusted others"?

Have we become a lost generation, so dependent on mapping services that we can no longer navigate on our own? Have we gained the world, only to lose our sense of place?

The traditional knock on services such as MapQuest is that they promote geographic illiteracy; instead of learning to read a map, you let the software figure out your route and give you marching orders like a backseat driver. But Greiner rejects that criticism. The increasingly interactive nature of mapping sites has had a positive impact on the culture, he insists, as people discover new aspects of their immediate environment and places they want to go.

"When analog clocks went digital, people thought nobody was going to be able to read a clock anymore," he says. "I don't think that's happened. When Microsoft Word came out with a spell-check program, everybody thought nobody would be able to spell anymore. There's this underground GIS [geographic information system] culture out there, and now it's being opened up to the mass market, with MapQuest leading the way. More people are going to be able to benefit from GIS and GPS technology. I think it will help people explore and enjoy their lives more."

The industry still has some formidable challenges ahead. Online mapping can take you only so far; the street-level data isn't readily available yet for some parts of the world. As the use of satellite images increases, so do the concerns about privacy and national-security issues. But Greiner sees a smooth ride ahead.

"We've pretty much established ourselves as a verb," he says. "Anywhere that can be put on a map, we'll find it for you."

Greiner is counting on people continuing to turn to MapQuest to find what they're looking for -- including themselves. Getting people to their destination has been the key to his company's success over the past ten years. It's what put them on the map.

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