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MapQuest inches toward modernity

An update improves MapQuest's interface, but not quite enough.

In talking to Mark Law, the new VP of product development for AOL's MapQuest, I was surprised to learn how powerful the service still is. To my mind the formerly leading mapping system is a trailing contender against Google, Yahoo, Microsoft, and, but apparently MapQuest is still in the game as a leading Web site, with 48 million monthly visitors to the site, not to mention the users of the service who see it embedded on partner sites.

The new MapQuest puts a map on the destination page, as well as a better address entry box.

Law walked me through updates to the service that will be rolling out as an optional beta test to the site's users on Tuesday. In a nutshell, the changes are evolutionary and to my mind required if the app to stay relevant. But the MapQuest team has to be careful with its updates, since so many general users of the service are accustomed to its somewhat old-fashioned interface and market-trailing features. Of his users, Law says simply, "They don't want to see a lot of change."

The service is still moving forward, just not at the blistering Web 2.0 pace of the other start-ups we cover here. The biggest change, according to Law, is this: "The major thing we're doing is actually adding a map. A novel concept, but we're putting it on the home page."

So when you go to, instead of just seeing an address entry box, now you'll see an actual map on the start page. You know, like on every other mapping site. But this is a necessary change for the service, so let's give the team credit for the update.

Also in the no-longer-new-for-2008 category: The service now makes it easy for you to recall your recently-used destinations and routes. And it can send directions to e-mail and to mobiles, via SMS.

Other improvements in the user interface include and entry box that does a better job of letting the user enter just a single address to map, or a start and end point to create a route. The system can now also parse long address strings instead of requiring the user to enter in address, city, and ZIP code separately.

I'm more impressed by the new location-based content getting layered into the service, such as weather, traffic incident reports, and gas prices. All these relevant data chunks pop up over the MapQuest maps, where they are actually useful. "We're transforming from just a maps utility to giving you what's around you," Law said.

Data blocks on items like gas prices and traffic now pop up over the map when you need them.

While the mobile "Navigator" version of the service ($49 a year) will give you walking directions in addition to the driving directions that are standard on the Web version, I was surprised that there's no public transit routing available yet. (To be fair, though, Google Maps on the iPhone doesn't offer either walking or transit directions.) Law said that, "We are evaluating what users are asking us for," but that some features--like transit--are difficult to launch while maintaining MapQuest's consistent quality across the country. "People trust us for our accuracy," he said. A quick survey at the CNET office reinforced this: Users here feel MapQuest is more reliable than Google, but Google is a lot easier and faster to work with.

As far as other, more Web 2.0 features, like support for community-edited maps, 3D views, street-level photography and the like, the advice I have for MapQuest fans is to not hold your breath. This service is squarely aimed at mainstream users and its 1,100 business partners (Law twice mentioned Dunkin Donuts as a user of the API).

I'm trying to find a positive lesson in MapQuest's story, but to be honest it's a reach. I can understand a company's goal to iterate its interface and features at a measured pace, to not alienate a large and profitable user base. But old-fashioned is rarely a winning characteristic of a Web business. In MapQuest's case I can't help but wonder where the company would be if it had been more aggressive in adopting new technology and distribution methods, as Microsoft and Google did in the vacuum it left. I'll take Law at his word that MapQuest is big. But it could have been much bigger.