Google I/O 2013 keynote

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Google Maps gets stunning makeover for Web, enhancements to mobile

“A perfect map of the world is foundational to delivering exactly what you want, when you want, and where you want it.” With those words from senior VP Amit Singhal, Google ushered in a brand new experience for Google Maps, both on the desktop and on mobile devices.

Brian McClendon, vice president of Google Maps took the stage on Wednesday during the Google I/O keynote to discuss Google’s popular mapping system. He reviewed the history of Google Maps, discussing the failures of early versions—such as not including much of the world in its initial launch—to more recent improvements. In particular, he pointed out that Goole maps now covers 200 countries—the latest is North Korea, built largely on people in the country submitting their own data via Google’s Map Maker tool.

McClendon stressed the importance of data to Google Maps, pointing out that the company has some of the largest and most thorough data sets available. In particular, he pointed out that the company has 40 million precise geocodes of local businesses, 50 billion kilometers of turn-by-turn directions, more than 1 million transit stops, and 50 countries of Street View data.

That was the first—and perhaps least pointed—of the shots against competitor Apple, whose Maps relaunch notably ran into problems last year. But despite its lead, Google isn’t standing still on Maps: The company showed off a completely new experience for one of its most popular services.

On the go

Google Maps’s revamped mobile experience was first in the spotlight. In demonstrating improvements to the mobile app, Google Maps director Daniel Graf drew particular attention to last year’s launch of Google Maps on the iPhone, calling it a “tremendous success.” In another dig at the Cupertino rivals, Graf said the app had been described as “sleek, simple, beautiful, and—let’s not forget—accurate.”

Many of the improvements to the mobile app revolve around social aspects. For example, Google has revamped the rating system on points of interest: There’s now a five-point rating scale that will be shared across all of Google Maps’s experience, regardless of whether it’s used in a browser or on a mobile device. In addition to the user reviews you’ve seen in the past, you’ll also get reviews from your friends on Google+. And integration with Zagat, the famed restaruant reviews that Google purchased, now lives on its own section, which you can access by tapping on a badge.

Google is also more tightly integrating Maps with its other services: Google Offers now has a new interface, and will display a badge on locations that have some sort of deal. In a demo, Graf showed off a deal from Starbucks, for half-off of a new drink; offers can be saved for later. The company will launch with a number of partners, with more to come in the future.

Beyond its focus on search, Google is also trying its hand on providing browseable information. The Google Maps apps features a new Explore interface, that lets you quickly look at different categories of points of interest: for example, where you should eat, or go for drinks, or shop, and so on. It’s integrated with the same rating information you’ll find on other local businesses, as well as Street View and other Google Maps features. In some places—“tens of thousands,” according to Graf—you can even see the stores inside a larger location, like a mall.

Despite all the data it already has, Google’s still thirsty for more: It’s beefing up its directions by adding live coverage of traffic incidents—tapping will display information about the incident. More to the point, Google Maps can use that information to improve your experience, automatically rerouting you if a faster route becomes available. (It’s worth noting that both of these are features are already available in Apple’s Maps, though their accuracy might be questionable.)

Finally, the new Google Maps app will come not only to smartphones, but to tablets—both Android-based, as well as the iPad—when it launches this summer.

On the Web

The focus on mobile, however, doesn’t mean that the tried-and-true Web interface is getting left by the wayside. If anything, it’s getting pushed even father forward.

A brand new Google Maps experience was unveiled by Google Maps team members Bernhard Seefeld and Jonah Jones. The new version borrows much from the mobile implementation: It uses vector-based maps—with the WebGL framework for improved performance—for smooth, quick rendering and loading, and replaces the traditional widget-based navigation interface with a more point-and-click system: Much as in the mobile experience, “the map is the interface.”

When you use the built-in search functionality, instead of being provided with a pane of search results, your hits appear on the map itself. Click any of them, and you’ll get a useful description of the place, much as you do in the mobile app.

High quality imagery is a big part of Google’s revamped design: In addition to the edge-to-edge design of the revamped maps, you can view 3D rotateable views of places—à la iOS 6’s Flyovers—like St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. Until now, that experience has been relegated to the Google Earth app, but now it’s built right into the Web version. Some locations even offer 3D tours, allowing you to browse through images to see the inside; many of these tours are based on user-uploaded photos. Seefeld demonstrated that he had earlier in the day uploaded a shot of the keynote room, which he could access by clicking on San Francisco’s Moscone Center in Google Maps.

That level of integration with social is the other ingredient in the revamp of Google Maps. Seefeld stressed that the maps are intended to be personal: When you are logged in to Google Maps, you’re shown locations that are important to you; the experience even improves as you continue to use it. For example, it might show you restaurants you’ve searched for, or places recommended to you by your Google+ friends.

The information is also contextual: Click on a location, and Maps will not only show you other related loactions nearby, but also emphasizes the roads that lead to the place, making sure that they’re all labeled. Your home appears on the map, if Google has that information, and you can quickly get directions from it to a selected location just by clicking on the marker for your home. Essentially, Seefeld explained, a new, unique map is created on every click.

Directions have been improved as well. Google now shows you side-by-side options for public transit and driving directions on the map, letting you easily compare them. In the case of public transit, you’ll also get a summary of all your options, culled from the week’s transit schedule. A new schedule viewer lets you find the option that best suits you, thanks to an overview that shows you how much walking or how many transfers are needed.

Google saved a little bit of eye candy for last: Zoom all the way out in Google Maps and you’ll get a view of the Earth from space, complete with real-time clouds, and—even farther out—a live shot of the day and night views of Earth; you can even watch the lights turn on as you rotate the globe.

This new version of Google Maps is available on Wednesday for I/O attendees. Those at home can request an invite at Google Maps’s Preview site; the first invites will go out tomorrow.

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