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Update, May 2014: The latest version of Google Maps re-introduced unlimited saving of offline maps. Hooray! Let’s hope it stays that way…
I’ve been a Google Maps fanboy for a long time. For years I’ve been telling everyone just what a wonderful product it is for travellers.
Coming from the days when finding my way around a new city involved picking up a tourist map from the train station or trying not to walk off the edge of what was printed in my guidebook, having accessible, accurate street maps for pretty much anywhere on the planet has been, well, kind of revolutionary.
Google isn’t the only game in town, of course, but what really set it apart from the competition for travellers in recent years (other than, you know, being accurate) was one simple feature: smartphone caching. Having a kick-ass mapping tool at your disposal while sitting in your hotel room is one thing, but that isn’t when you need it the most.
When you’re standing at an intersection trying to work out which of the sketchy-looking streets is going to take you to the bar you’re trying to find, however? Yeah, that’s when it matters – and that’s precisely when most travellers won’t have a data connection.
Obviously realising that, two years ago Google released an experimental feature called ‘Download Map Area’, and the travelling world rejoiced. Well, those with an Android device, at least – iOS users were still stuck with just scrolling around the map and hoping the cache stayed in memory.
For those using Google’s operating system, however, life suddenly got a whole lot better. With a couple of taps, they could download map data within a 10 mile radius of a given point and use it offline. Even better, it worked for multiple locations – you could (and I did) download central city maps for everywhere you were going in the next few weeks and they just worked when you got there. Magic!
Google’s blog post announcing the feature made the following bold statement at the time:
But what if you don’t have a data signal, or you’re abroad and don’t have a data plan? We say that if you use Google Maps for mobile, you’ll never need to carry a paper map again. The “Download map area” lab in Google Maps 5.7 for Android is a step in making that statement true even when you’re offline.And, for a while, that really did seem to be the case. It worked so well that, despite still being an ‘experimental’ feature, it just felt like a vital, integral part of the product.
The first sign that not all was well in Google-Maps-offline-caching world came last year, with an update that simultaneously made things better (making offline mode an official feature) and worse (restricting the number of maps that could be cached, and the countries it could be used in).
While in the past you could download any area you could load, all of a sudden a message started popping up stating “Offline maps is not available in selected area” in countries as diverse as Malaysia, Spain, Thailand and many others.
Many of us avoided updating the app as long as possible, but eventually succumbed – and all of a sudden offline caching became noticeably less useful. A feature that you can’t always rely on becomes a feature that you soon stop trusting.
Still, travellers put up with the new restrictions because, well, working sometimes was at least better than not working at all. That is, until just a few days ago, when with another update Google just quietly removed offline mode altogether. It’s new! It’s shiny! It’s useless for most travellers.
The company said it was working on the feature, but it wasn’t quite ready for prime time. If that was the case, why was an ‘Easter egg‘ included to re-enable offline caching (albeit at a basic level)?
And why, then, after the Internet exploded in outrage, did it take all of a day for an updated version to hit the Play store that – amazingly enough – turned the ability to download maps back on again?
And, most importantly, why the hell does offline mode become less and less useful on Android with every round of updates? Two years ago travellers could cache unlimited map areas of almost any size, anywhere in the world without restriction.
Today, they can cache just one map in a limited number of countries. Apparently that’s progress … at least according to Google.
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Of course for users of Apple devices, none of this matters – they’ve never had the ability to download Google Maps properly for offline use. Assuming that they’ll at least get this new, crippled caching ability in the next update for iOS, it’ll seem like a wonderful enhancement.
For Android users, however, it just feels that Google couldn’t care less about a feature that thousands of travellers around the globe rely on every day. And, frankly, that sucks. Personally, where in the past I wouldn’t have even considered looking at another mapping app on my phone, I’m now in the market for something else – and I’m not the only one.
It’s hard to build up brand loyalty, but it’s incredibly easy to lose it. Between this and the recent Reader fiasco, Google is losing the trust of some of its most ardent supporters. Will it get it back? Who knows – maybe, maybe not.
But wouldn’t it be better to just not have lost it in the first place?
Images via Google