Google Maps has been the default app for most of us finding our way around the world since it was introduced on February 8, 2005. Sure, there have been competitors, most notably Apple's effort to create its own app, but none has come close to surpassing the convenience and accuracy of Google's version.

Now that Google Maps has officially made it into young adulthood, it's worth looking at how far it has come, and highlight one feature that is clearly the best yet. But first, a little look back.

It's actually hard to believe that when Google Maps first launched, it was only available on your desktop computer. Of course, in 2005, there was no iPhone, and most mobile phones had only rudimentary apps or Web browsing capabilities. It wasn't until 2007 that Google brought Maps to mobile. That same year, Google introduced Street View, and we've been spotting those funny looking cars with cameras strapped all over them ever since. 

I think it's fair to say that Street View has completely changed the way we can interact with places we may never see in real life. In fact, for the 15th birthday of Google Maps, the company is sharing what it says are its favorite of the 170 billion images that comprise Street View. For example, you can scale El Capitan in Yosemite, cruise the Amazon river, or even visit the International Space Station, all within Street View.

And speaking of that birthday, Google also said it is introducing a new version of Maps, with five tabs, instead of the current three. In addition to the familiar "Explore" and "Commute" tabs, there are now a few new features.

Among those are a "Saved" tab, which is a place to organize all your saved favorite places, and a "Contribute" tab that Google says will allow users to easily share local knowledge, such as details about roads and addresses, missing places, business reviews, and photos. Finally, there's an "Updates" tab that includes curated recommendations from local experts.

And while there have been plenty of really helpful features added over time (hello, turn-by-turn directions), it's a new way to use Street View that is by far the best yet. Google calls it Live View, and actually introduced it a year ago. It's the feature that uses augmented reality (AR) to help you find your way around when walking, by actually showing you directions as an overlay to your surroundings.

So, for example, when you walk out of a building and aren't sure which side of the street you're on, or which direction to turn, you can use Live View and let Google show you. Google says it is currently working on expanding Live View and adding capabilities, such as allowing you to "quickly see how far away and in which direction a place is."

That may not seem like that big of a deal -- until you find yourself in the midst of tall buildings or unfamiliar surroundings. In fact, I'd argue that Live View is one of the most practical applications of AR so far. I'm generally in favor of anything that helps me not get lost, and instead show up on time. 

Google says the new version of the app is available today, which means you should be able to download the update directly from the Apple App Store, or Google Play on Android devices. 

Published on: Feb 6, 2020
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