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The Game-Changing Droid Smartphone and its GPS and Navigation Features

Droid Phone Running Google's Android 2.0 OS With Free Turn-by-turn Directions

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Droid GPS turn-by-turn

The Motorola - Verizon Droid smartphone offers GPS turn-by-turn directions.

Motorola

The corporate partnerships that are created to put a new smartphone on the market can be complicated, and that's the case with the new Droid model phone. The Droid is designed and manufactured by Motorola. The phone company carrier featuring the Droid as an exclusive (for now) is Verizon Wireless. Smartphones, which are really mini-computers, need operating system software, just like any other computer, and the Droid's operating system is Android 2.0, designed and offered by Google. But Google goes beyond providing the operating system, to add application software and connected services to the smartphone ecosystem. Got all that? So the Droid is a Motorola-Verizon-Android-Google smartphone, with other partners playing lesser roles. For simplicity, let's just call it by its Droid model name.

The Droid is being touted as a milestone, and by some, as a killer of the standalone GPS hardware business. The Droid is a game-changer, but like any other product, it has its pros and cons.

The story of why Droid is significant goes back to both Apple and Google. Apple was the first company to pry open access to how smartphones run, the software and services they offer, the quality of their touchscreens and more with the iPhone. Google saw opportunity in the fast-growing smartphone market too, and developed an even more open OS environment called Android to broaden its reach and audience.

The consumer is a winner in this tech race. Offerings have changed from a closed system of mostly awful and costly phone company software and apps, to incredible quality and variety.

The Droid fires the latest salvo in this battle by offering something that we've been paying for, turn-by-turn GPS navigation, for free. Or at least "free" on top of the cost of the phone ($199.99 with a two-year contract), its service plan, and data plan. The free Google Maps Navigation app runs only under the Android 2.0 operating system, and for now, the Droid is the only smartphone on the market running Android 2.0. In fact, other Verizon Wireless customers who aren't using a Droid will still have to pay $9.99 per month for VZ Navigator to get turn-by-turn. I wonder how conversations about those decisions went in the Verizon boardroom?

Google Maps Navigation
Google Maps Navigation provides some familiar services, and brings some new innovations to navigation. The software provides spoken, turn-by-turn directions, including text-to-speech to help you navigate without looking at the screen.

Google Maps Navigation pulls its points-of-interest (POI) information from Google search, rather than from a fixed POI database in memory, like many dedicated GPS devices. That's mostly a plus, since POI databases become quickly outdated (there is an estimated 20 percent turnover of new listings each year). The app also downloads maps on the fly, again good for staying up to date. However, you are without maps if you drive for an extended period outside of range of cell phone signals (this can and does happen and may be when you most need navigation services).

Google Maps Navigation's "search by voice" is a powerful feature that hasn't been done well by other GPS makers when it has been attempted. It uses the core technology from Google's existing voice search service, which is best-in-class and works quite well.

Its traffic detection and avoidance feature is already built into Google Maps mobile, and works quite well, in my experience. In a typical traffic service, data is obtained from a variety of sources, including emergency services, government, and monitoring stations. Google and TomTom are currently the only companies also rolling in anonymous data from customers' devices out on the highway, providing better real-time info.

Also setting Google Maps Navigation apart are its satellite view and street view features. You are likely familiar with both of these features from using Google Maps. Think about having them on board as you navigate and approach your destination or critical exit ramps and intersections. They are powerful additions to the mobile navigation mix.

Top all of this off with a car windshield/dash mount kit (see photo: $29.99) for the Droid, make the price free, and you have a very compelling nav offering in Google Maps Navigation.

Free is exciting, but there are still distinct advantages to dedicated GPS hardware, including larger screens (and getting bigger, with the intro of 5-inch-plus screens) and keeping your phone function separate while you drive.

Also, comparing the Droid to the iPhone, you may pay for navigation apps on the iPhone (some, such as the MotionX for as little as $25 per year), but there are many more free apps of other types in the iPhone ecosystem, so you have more options and a potentially lower net cost, depending on what you use.

The Droid is a game changer, but not a game ender. I look forward to seeing what comes next.

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