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Wednesday, September 14, 2016

The Trouble with GPS Apps (iPhone or Android)

As a techie and especially a mobile device specialist, GPS applications have been a mainstay of my business and government training activities and personal use. All, except perhaps for Gas Buddy, are among the most confusing and cryptic apps you can put on your phone. That’s why people literally hire me to teach these apps to their employees that travel often. It is no wonder I still see so many Garmin and TomTom appliances still stuck to windshields.

I would expect any basic GPS app to find major street addresses, if you carefully type in the address. Most apps locate the address, but in the wrong state or country half the time. The app definitely knows I am in Baltimore today so why is it suggesting a street address in Cedar Rapids, Iowa?  Or Toronto, Canada?

Next I would expect most apps to automatically remember common directions for places, if you sign-in to the application. Most apps do not do this. OK, so you will not remember where I go automatically, why not let me show you? Nope, they might have a Favorites function but it does not let you give easily give it a name or a shortcut. Good luck finding these favorites when you need them most. I understand if you stand on one foot, tell the dog to get off the couch and let a 4-year old name the location, it works. But if you, yourself, want to add a location and give it a custom name, while you are parked at a Rest Area or sitting at a desk, you will only succeed 5% of the time.

I would expect most apps would default to showing you the driving directions. Wrong again. Google Maps prefers to give me the walking directions to New York City and the bicycle directions to Virginia Beach, from my home near Washington, DC. Dare I touch my phone for any reason during a journey. Many apps will quickly figure you wanted to turn around on the way to the store and suddenly drive to Miami Beach. I guess I should be glad they don’t have an option for directions by horseback.

Don’t get me wrong about GPS mapping. I love it. It works great on my iPad and on any laptop computer. These things are just a little too much to use while on the front seat of my Cadillac behind the steering wheel (while parked at a Rest Area). This raised another issue, do the app developers even understand that these apps are used by drivers in real cars? Every GPS app I’ve tested drains the battery to 0% in about an hour. All the GPS apps I’ve tried also go silent if I plug the phone into any power source. Other than power consumption, lack of correct directions, and not consistently telling me the next turn most apps are just fine.

Perhaps all this is because the app developers want you to buy the paid version instead of use the free app. I understand that logic entirely. I like to get paid for my work. Unfortunately that is not the case. Buying an app only removes the ads from what I can tell. I purposely bought several of the highly recommended GPS apps when doing a project for a major car rental firm. All the apps failed at the basic steps, all the Help sites for these apps provide excellent step-by-step instructions, except the instructions were all wrong.

Google Maps tells you to press and hold a location. Do that and it automatically picks a different location around the corner from your intended destination.

The GPS tools built into most luxury cars are great, if you have a few hours to carefully type everything in using some weird miniature keyboard. Oh, and don’t forget you need to subscribe to the GPS service at $25/month after the first year.

I’m sure all these apps function fine for the Application Developers and the committee of computer programmers that join their office focus groups. What happens when you test your GPS app with actual humans instead of programmers? Does anybody take the time to test any product with real humans anymore?

I realize that with enough practice humans can learn to use any application. I’m sure the harpsichord creator found it a very easy instrument to play back in the day. Millions of people learned to play piano over the years, with plenty of lessons and time. Most people do not have years to learn the minuscule controls of a GPS application. Even learning any application in detail is worthless exercise, because the developer will release a completely different version a week later.

Voice commands are not a solution, at least not until phones learn how to recognize plain English, that is expected to occur sometime around 2050. I do dictate to my devices, I have since the first versions of Dragon Naturally Speaking came out long ago. It is a great way to get a laugh out of a somber audience. I compare voice recognition software to the old Mad Libs game played with a special pad of paper. It’s better now but still very risky to use for any document your employer expects to be correct.

Artificial Intelligence (AI) is often brought up as the solution to all of the world’s major problems, including mapping. The problem with AI is that people still do not have a grasp on what constitutes normal human intelligence. We don’t stand a chance of figuring out what a computer-driven intelligence should be capable of, if we don’t know how we do what do now.

The firm that comes up with an easy-to-use GPS application that doesn’t cost $25/month will probably become the next unicorn. I would just like to see that happen sometime before all humans are replaced as drivers, by Uber, next year sometime. In the meantime I’ll keep using the maps function in Gas Buddy, and save hundreds of dollars in fuel at the same time.

Note: I am not directly paid by any of the firms or apps mentioned in any of my articles. Most of my income comes to me indirectly, through strategic stock market investments (90%) and technical training classes (10%).

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