You can almost hear the portable navigation industry swearing already.
Google is announcing plans Wednesday to release a new Android application called Google Maps Navigation. When combined with a GPS-equipped mobile phone running Android 2.0, it provides turn-by-turn directions powered by Google Maps and a slick user interface that combines features such as voice recognition and Google Street View. Google Maps Navigation, like seemingly everything that emerges from Google, will be free.
"Mobile platforms--Android and others--are so powerful now that you can build client apps that can do magical things connected to the cloud," said Google CEO Eric Schmidt in a briefing for reporters at Google's headquarters on Tuesday.
Companies in the cell phone navigation industry have seen this day coming for quite some time. Right now, the beta application only works on phones that will use the Android 2.0 software, which is scheduled to be available very soon with the expected arrival of Motorola's Droid phone on Verizon's network.
Google's Vic Gundotra appeared to demonstrate the application on the Droid: he wouldn't confirm it, but it was a shiny black Android 2.0 phone running on Verizon's network and bearing Motorola's stamp, so we're probably not going too far out on a limb here. (Update, 7:24 a.m. PDT: Says Google's Wednesday morning press release: "The first phone to have Google Maps Navigation and Android 2.0 is the Droid from Verizon.")
However, Google is working with Apple on bringing it to the iPhone, and it's not ruling out licensing the software to makers of portable navigation devices used inthroughout the world, said Gundotra, vice president of engineering at Google for mobile and developers. The process involving Apple is slightly different from the usual App Store submission process, because Maps is a built-in iPhone application, he said.
The application works like any navigation system that you may have used, but it combines Google Search and Google Maps functions that are normally only available on the desktop and brings them to the smartphone. Perhaps the most interesting and useful feature comes from Google Street View, allowing Google to provide a Street View image at every turn that the application suggests during your journey.
As with other navigation applications, users can search for gas stations or restaurants along the way, and get real-time traffic information. Google also developed a unique "arms-length" user interface that automatically pops up when the software detects that it has been placed into a dashboard holder, with bigger buttons and links to voice controls front and center.
Obviously, Google is not the first to offer a combination of turn-by-turn maps and Web services. Many different smartphone applications provide this type of navigation service, and companies like Garmin and TomTom are also working to embed Web-delivered data into their on-dash and built-in navigation systems.
But the price for Google Maps Navigation--free--will be tough to beat. Expect to see ads pop up at a later date, although they won't be present at launch.
Google doesn't plan to open-source the application but does plan to make it free on Android 2.0 phones, and implied that the application would be free for other partners as they cut deals to use the application. That could dramatically reduce the cost of developing navigation services, undercutting the established industry with a product that consumers already know very well: there are 50 million active users of Google Mobile Maps, Gundotra said.
Google is not sure whether Google Maps Navigation will work on older Android phones that will get upgraded to Android 2.0. That depends on the carrier and phone maker, Gundotra said.