Smartphones are no better than the apps that they run. So, if you're going to follow the money on Google's bet on its Android operating system for mobile phones, you also have to follow the apps. That's where an Android phone will have to distinguish itself from an iPhone or BlackBerry or other handheld device.
Even if they get to run the same Web-based service from Google.
Also debuting Tuesday was Google's latest edition of its transit mapping service, available now in New York City, the nation's largest metropolis. And probably the locale most dependent on combinations of trains, subways, buses and feet, to get around.
This is the 70th city around the globe to get Google Transit on Maps, according to product manager Raphael Leiteritz. But you would have thought it was the first, if you walked through Grand Central Terminal. Google Transit was being promoted inside and out with pamphleteers handing out paper transit maps and demonstrations were ubiquitous, with proselytes showing what was possible with overhead screens, strapped to their backs.
Google had also taken over the Metrazur restaurant that overlooks the main concourse, affixing a series of green and one huge red pin, next to a New York map, to draw attention. What usually is a bar was for this day another demo station.
What Google was trying to show was that its approach to mapping out local movement was "much broader" than the existing services trying to fill the need to know how to get about a dense urban area efficiently, according to Tom Sly, a Google new business developer. These, in the New York area, would be HopStop, Trips123 and the Metropolitan Transit Authority's own Trip Planner.
To Sly and Leiteritz, Google Transit on Maps is not so much a trip planner, as a new form of local search. A business-friendly app for mobile customers.
Here's the New York version. If you're finishing your glass of chardonnay in Metrazur and want to figure out how to get quickly to Zabar's to pick up some smoked fish and caviar for a quick meal to continue your commiseration of the day's losses on Wall Street, you type in "Metrazur" as the starting point and "Zabar's" as the destination. You select the right location (Metrazur, in Grand Central Terminal, for instance) from options given, opt for "public transit,'' instead of "walking" or "car," and right away get shown symbols that tell you to take the Times Square Shuttle and then the 1 line on the subway to get where you're going. And if you want to see exactly what Zabar's looks like, if this is your first visit, you can of course throw up the Street View.
But a mobile app is only good as its connectivity. Demonstrations on BlackBerries on the main concourse and on the Metrazur mezzanine both failed. Perhaps Google was trying to show off too much of a good thing to too many folks, at one time. Only computer-based demos, this day, were reliable.
And Google Transit on Maps still hasn't quite figured out the last mile problem, at least in this metropolitan area. If, say, you want to figure out how to get from your home in Connecticut, a couple miles from a train station, to your office at 28th and Park in Manhattan, Google Transit on Maps won't put you on a train. It'll only send you by car. You have to enter the name of your train station as the start point, which is easy enough to do. But you have to figure this out on your own, right now.
That kind of kink will work itself out. The bigger question will be: Will Google really keep apps like this open to all Web browsers and all Web phones (read: iPhone, etc.) -- or will it follow the likes of Apple and Microsoft before it, and find ways to tie the use of its apps to a particular technology platform ... like Android?
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