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Mapping a new course with smartphone apps

George Avalos
The Mercury News

San Jose, Calif. — When it comes to map apps, consumers are finding plenty of fresh paths to digital navigation thanks to Google, Apple and a whole host of rivals.

Here WeGo, Waze, MapFactor, Mapquest, Scout GPS, Maps.Me and InRoute are just some of the apps that are challenging Google Maps and Apple Maps, which dominate smartphone mapping services, by focusing on new and novel features.

Google and Apple, though, aren’t content to stay in the slow lane of innovation. Both have added new features to their map apps in recent months, including enabling users to add interim destinations to go along with the ultimate stop on a trip. Google’s changes rolled out in an update to Google Maps this summer; Apple’s changes will be included in iOS 10, the soon-to-be released next version of its mobile operating system.

“Just open the app, enter a destination, tap the corner menu, and then click add a stop,” Google says in a blog post. “To rearrange the order of your stops, tap and hold the three-dot menu to the left of Add Stop and drag it to the position you want.”

The Apple Maps service has new features that seek to meld activities and services associated with a trip.

“Apps like OpenTable can integrate bookings right into Maps,” Apple says on its website. “Services like Uber and Lyft can make it easier for users to book a ride, without ever leaving the Maps app.”

And while this navigational arms race shifts into high gear, it’s become apparent the original stand-alone GPS devices are becoming stranded by the side of the road.

The proliferation of smartphone apps has reshaped a market once dominated by the stand-alone machines, such as TomTom, Garmin and Magellan. According to market research firm Berg Insight, worldwide shipments of personal navigation devices has decreased from 40 million units in 2008 to a projected 11 million by the end of this year. That number is expected to drop to just 7 million in 2019 — less than a tenth of projected smartphone map app users in that year.

“Most consumers are using their smartphones as their primary navigation and map system,” said Ben Bajarin, an analyst with Creative Strategies, a market researcher. “Retailers, in a lot of cases, don’t really promote the stand-alone devices any more.”

The established map apps from Google and Apple offer a wide array of features, with the centerpiece being turn-by-turn navigation. And while the emerging apps also typically offer turn-based directions, they all attempt to offer niche features that also can go beyond the basics of the apps from the tech titans.

Google-owned Waze, whose service is separate from Google Maps, emphasizes the social aspects of traveling, and its new features include improved ways to share your estimated time of arrival with others. It also provides quick access to frequent destinations.

Other apps also seek to meld the drive with other services. Scout GPS emphasizes social interaction, including the ability to message friends and family and share your location or destination with designated people. Here WeGo allows you to summon taxicabs or access a ride-hailing service.

InRoute, designed mainly for long road trips, offers the ability to add numerous stops — and drivers can easily select routes that avoid areas with hot temperatures or hilly terrain.

Saying it makes “cities easier to use,” Citymapper is geared to the daily commuter. In addition to vehicle navigation, the app has found a way to coordinate public transit and ride-hailing services so people can plan integrated trips.

Experts predict the pace of innovation will pick up even more for map apps.

They might start taking note of what types of restaurants you visit and only suggest those when you’re looking for a place to eat.

“The unique personalization of mapping is the next step,” said Rob Enderle, an Oregon-based analyst who tracks the tech sector. “We are on that cusp.”