When a Map is No Longer Just a Map

This past Sunday, I indulged in my one and only reality TV obsession. I long ago gave up on the idea that I could actually be on “Amazing Race” on CBS, especially since my friends refuse to pair up with me to make a team until I learn my left from right. And honestly, I’m in my 30’s and kinda feel like that lesson has passed me by.

Though I won’t ever race for real, I still talk (or sometimes curse) out loud at the television for an hour straight as if I were really there. As the team dynamics unfolded during this season’s premiere episode, I decided I’d never be able to race even if I suddenly obtained a sense of direction. There is absolutely no way I’d undertake that kind of adventure without a data- and voice-enabled mobile phone with international service. After all, I panic when I leave the house without my BlackBerry. I can’t but help think about of all the mobile applications I’d download before taking on an “Amazing Race” adventure.

On my mental list of mobile applications, I’d include everything from translators, to currency calculators, world clocks, maps, social networks, and games. I also had a lengthy list of mobile sites to add to my bookmark list. Plus, I’d have on speed dial every airline, directory listing service, and of course, my mom.

Let’s drill down into mobile maps. Mobile mapping is just about the ultimate example of relevant, timely, and actionable information. A quick check on usage shows that eight percent of U.S. based mobile subscribers accessed maps from mobile devices over a three-month period that ended in May 2008, according to a comScore report. This represents an 82 percent increase year-over-year. The majority of users were looking for driving directions and accessing the information from a mobile browser versus an application.

In contrast, just three percent of European subscribers accessed maps over the same time period.

For me, a map of a place I’d most likely never been to before wouldn’t really do me all that much good. I’m realistic enough to know that exact addresses wouldn’t be written on my challenge clue packet enabling me to get directions from place to place. The visual then would only get me so far but what might really be useful would be to know what other landmarks or retail stores were in the general area of a location. This isn’t rocket science but it did actually make me remember reading something, in just the last week or so, about Visa and Google Android’s location-based-service (LBS) technology.

When I access Google and type in “Lincoln Park Chicago IL” in search local, I have to scroll and pick something to actually get on the map, like the Lincoln Park Zoo listing. When that renders on the map, I have lots of streets and one pin mark for the location of the zoo. I know nothing about the neighborhood nor do I know what — if anything — is nearby. That, however is changing and not just for those of you with iPhones and all the Where applications.

Included in the news release involving Visa m-payments, Google’s Android, and Nokia is one line that stands to change the way we navigate our physical world. The official release contains the following:

“The first set of services that Visa is planning to develop for Android will allow Chase Visa cardholders to receive notifications to their mobile devices about transaction activity on their accounts; obtain offers from a wide array of merchants; and use the built-in location-based technology developed by Google to quickly map nearby merchants where they can redeem Visa offers and locate ATMs that accept Visa.”

Finally, in the mobile space, a map is no longer just a map. The future of navigation for consumers will bridge the gap between point A and point B, bringing people and places (like retail stores and mom-and-pop shops, too) together with marketers like never before. The real promise of on-the-go access is unfolding now. Too bad the folks on “Amazing Race” have to win the old-fashioned way.

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