Monday, January 7, 2013

Windows Phone VS Google Maps


On Friday, Windows Phone users supposedly found themselves unable to access Google Maps. But Google said it made no sudden change on its end to cause this. What happened? It seems likely many people simple noticed for the first time long-standing redirection that Google had in place for those not using Android or iOS devices.

Windows Phone User? No Google Maps For You!

To recap briefly, some Windows Phone users started reporting(as covered by The Verge) that they were unable to reach Google Maps using the Internet Explorer web browser on their phones. They got redirected instead to the Google home page.
Google initially suggested (as covered by Gizmodo) that this was because Internet Explorer on Windows Phone wasn’t a WebKit-based browser and so Google Maps wouldn’t work for it.
Google later added (as covered by The Next Web) that it was redirecting people on Windows Phone devices because of this incompatibility, but Google said this would soon change, since the latest version of Internet Explorer for Windows Phone was now apparently Google Maps-capable:
Google sent us the same statement that The Next Web received, which says:
We periodically test Google Maps compatibility with mobile browsers to make sure we deliver the best experience for those users.
In our last test, IE mobile still did not offer a good maps experience with no ability to pan or zoom and perform basic map functionality. As a result, we chose to continue to redirect IE mobile users to Google.com where they could at least make local searches. The Firefox mobile browser did offer a somewhat better user experience and that’s why there is no redirect for those users.
Recent improvements to IE mobile and Google Maps now deliver a better experience and we are currently working to remove the redirect. We will continue to test Google Maps compatibility with other mobile browsers to ensure the best possible experience for users.
I’ll revisit that statement in a moment, but first, several publications keep saying that Google Maps was never supported for Windows smartphone users. That’s not the case.

Google Used To Support Windows Mobile Devices

Consider this screenshot of the Google Maps For Mobile page from mid-2011:
That third device? That’s a Windows mobile device. Google even had specific instructions for those wanting to use Windows mobile devices to reach Google Maps:
Given the above, let’s put to rest what I keep reading, that Google Maps has never supported Windows phones. It clearly has, as far back as 2010 and at least officially through June 2012,according to the Internet Archive.

Windows Mobile Vs. Windows Phone

Ah, but are we talking Windows Mobile being supported but not Windows Phone? That’s a Windows Mobile device being shown (I used to use one of these regularly). Windows Mobile was the predecessor to Microsoft’s current Windows Phone mobile operating system.
It seems that it is Windows Mobile that this page was referring to. Google told me that the page was for its old Windows Mobile app that’s no longer supported.
Apparently, going to the m.google.com/maps URL would have triggered a request to download the app to a Windows Mobile device.
What if you went to the regular version of Google Maps in your Windows Mobile browser? Well, years ago Windows Mobile was my main phone, and I used Google Maps all the time. I seem to remember using it through my browser, not through an app.

Which Version Of IE For Windows Phone “Failed” & When?

As for Windows Phone, apparently this page was never updated to reflect whether Windows Phone was supported or not despite the release of that operating system in early 2010.
Windows Phone 7.5 shipped with Internet Explorer 9; Windows Phone 8 with Internet Explorer 10. Was it an issue with one or both of these browsers? That leads us back to this part of Google’s statement:
We periodically test Google Maps compatibility with mobile browsers to make sure we deliver the best experience for those users.
In our last test, IE mobile still did not offer a good maps experience with no ability to pan or zoom and perform basic map functionality. As a result, we chose to continue to redirect IE mobile users to Google.com where they could at least make local searches.
The statement tells us that some version of IE was found lacking by Google at some point in the past, so Google put a redirect into place. Was it IE9 for mobile? IE10 for mobile? Some minor version of either of these? Google hasn’t said.
I asked Google when the test was done on IE, and when the redirect based on that failed test was put into place. Google said it couldn’t share when the test was done and that the redirect was in place for “some time.”
That doesn’t provide much clarity.

Why Didn’t Users Encounter The Redirect Before?

One odd thing is what long-time Microsoft watcher Mary Jo Foley pointed out on CNET:
In response to a query from me, a Google representative said the redirection for Windows Phone users seeking access to Google Maps via IE in the browser has “always” been in place. I cannot definitively prove this is wrong, but it seems to me that I’ve used Google Maps via IE on my Windows Phone at least once in the past year-plus.
Indeed, I’ve used various Windows Phone devices for about two years, and I’m virtually certain I’ve accessed Google Maps through my web browser on those phones without encountering a redirect.
Most puzzling, though, is that if the redirect has been out there for some time — let’s assume at least weeks, if not months — then why did all these Windows Phone users suddenly encounter problems?
Google’s not sure but tells me: “We did not make any changes in the last few days.” [NOTE:See my postscript below that explains how Google does seem correct, that this isn't a new change just one that's been recently noticed].

Looks Bad – More Windows Phone Support Would Help

However it happened, it’s very bad timing. It comes just after Google basically won the anti-trust investigation that the US Federal Trade Commission had ben conducting. It gives the impression that Google decided to cut-out those on Microsoft’s mobile platform perhaps to help hurt Microsoft’s already-weak mobile market share.
It also comes on the heels of Google being accused by Microsoft of blocking a YouTube app for Windows Phone.
One thing that would help would be if Google built an actual Google Maps app for Windows Phone, similar to the work it did to make one for Apple’s iOS operating system.
Google’s argument in these cases tends to be that it shuns Windows Phone because of low market share (effectively what it told me about not providing Google Voice for Windows Phone). The grand total of apps published by Google for Windows Phone? One:

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