What’s MapQuest Up To?

For a web service that’s been left out of the limelight by its upstart rivals for most of this year, MapQuest is suddenly generating some news interest: first by announcing a collaboration with GPS maker TomTom to produce a car-based routefinder using MapQuest’s maps; and then by announcing an upgraded “Find Me” service for Sprint-based Blackberry units (via All Points Blog).

A new article on Directions, MapQuest Reinvented, helps explain what’s going on. Essentially, MapQuest’s moving in a different direction than Google and Microsoft: rather than aggressively innovating in terms of web interface and hackable API, they’re expanding their products in more utilitarian, but in their view, more useful ways — i.e., on mobile devices and even on paper (see previous entry: MapQuest Goes Paper).

Expanding beyond the computer screen is a shrewd response, I think, and challenges our expectations of what constitutes usability. (Maps are more useful when they’re portable.) As for the comparitive creakiness of the web maps, a lot of that has to do with the fact that MapQuest has to look after its existing user base — something that an up-and-comer like Google doesn’t have. Most of that user base, according to the Directions article, prints out its maps; some of them are using old browsers that can’t handle the newfangled Javascript that powers Google Maps:

The utilitarian side of MapQuest comes across when [MapQuest CTO Austin] Klahn addresses why the MapQuest website seems so far “behind” that of the other map portal players. Part of the reason is that MapQuest, unlike the “new” players must continue to support the machines, operating systems and browsers of its core users. That means supporting a user base with Mac OS 9, Internet Explorer 5 and the like. Klahn provided few details but made it clear that enhancements were on the way.