April 22, 2019
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Watch out Facebook, Google Maps on iOS now lets users track their favorite businesses, too

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Google Maps for iOS will now allow users to follow their favorite businesses right in the app, the company announced today. The feature, which positions the platform as a challenger to Facebook Pages, lets users keep track of a business’s news and updates — like their sales, promotions or events, for example — through a new “For You” tab in the mobile app.

The feature was previously available on Android.

This past fall, Google rolled out the “Follow” feature on Google Maps on Android with little fanfare, beyond a brief blog post about the launch. But the feature’s significance shouldn’t be understated. Google Maps is one of the most-used apps in the world with more than a billion users. Over the years, it has steadily expanded its feature set beyond just place search and navigation to become a tool to seek out new businesses, find restaurants and shops, read reviews, browse photos and much more.

Now, Google is giving businesses a way to directly communicate with their customers, much like Facebook does today.

Through a revamped My Business app, also launched last fall, business owners can post content updates to their business profile on Google. These are the same sort of updates that, previously, would have been published exclusively to social media — like the dates of a big sales event or a grand opening, for example.

Businesses can also use the My Business app to track their customer reviews and respond to messages from Google Maps users in a centralized fashion.

However, before today, the ability for Google Maps users to follow their favorite businesses’ updates was something that was only available on Android. Now, iOS users can join in, too.

Starting this week, Google is rolling out an update to the Google Maps app. Now, iOS users can search for a place — like a restaurant, store or anything else — then tap the “Follow” button to keep up with the place’s news within the “For You” tab.

And on the other end, businesses will now be able to see all their customers — not just those using Android devices.

The Follow button is rolling out today, but releases reaching this large of a user base take time. You may not see the changes immediately, but should soon.

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Hands-on with an Alpha build of Google Maps’ Augmented Reality mode

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I think most of us have had this experience, especially when you’re in a big city: you step off of public transit, take a peek at Google Maps to figure out which way you’re supposed to go… and then somehow proceed to walk two blocks in the wrong direction.

Maybe the little blue dot wasn’t actually in the right place yet. Maybe your phone’s compass was bugging out and facing the wrong way because you’re surrounded by 30-story buildings full of metal and other things that compasses hate.

Google Maps’ work-in-progress augmented reality mode wants to end that scenario, drawing arrows and signage onto your camera’s view of the real world to make extra, super sure you’re heading the right way. It compares that camera view with its massive collection of Street View imagery to try to figure out exactly where you’re standing and which way you’re facing, even when your GPS and/or compass might be a little off. It’s currently in alpha testing, and I spent some hands-on time with it this morning.

A little glimpse of what it looks like in action:

Google first announced AR walking directions about nine months ago at its I/O conference, but has been pretty quiet about it since. Much of that time has been spent figuring out the subtleties of the user interface. If they drew a specific route on the ground, early users tried to stand directly on top of the line when walking, even if it wasn’t necessary or safe. When they tried to use particle effects floating in the air to represent paths and curves (pictured below in any early prototype) a Google UX designer tells us one user asked why they were ‘following floating trash’.

The Maps team also learned that no one wants to hold their phone up very long. The whole experience has to be pretty quick, and is designed to be used in short bursts — in fact, if you hold up the camera for too long, the app will tell you to stop.

Firing up AR mode feels like starting up any other Google Maps trip. Pop in your destination, hit the walking directions button… but instead of “Start”, you tap the new “Start AR” button.

A view from your camera appears on screen, and the app asks you to point the camera at buildings across the street. As you do so, a bunch of dots will pop up as it recognizes building features and landmarks that might help it pinpoint your location. Pretty quickly — a few seconds, in our handful of tests — the dots fade away, and a set of arrows and markers appear to guide your way. A small cut-out view at the bottom shows your current location on the map, which does a pretty good job of making the transition from camera mode to map mode a bit less jarring.

When you drop the phone to a more natural position – closer to parallel with the ground, like you might hold it if you’re reading texts while you walk — Google Maps will shift back into the standard 2D map view. Hold up the phone like you’re taking a portrait photo of what’s in front of you, and AR mode comes back in.

In our short test (about 45 minutes in all), the feature worked as promised. It definitely works better in some scenarios than others; if you’re closer to the street and thus have a better view of the buildings across the way, it works out its location pretty quick and with ridiculous accuracy. If you’re in the middle of a plaza, it might take a few seconds longer.

Google’s decision to build this as something that you’re only meant to use for a few seconds is the right one. Between making yourself an easy target for would-be phone thieves or walking into light poles, no one wants to wander a city primarily through the camera lens of their phone. I can see myself using it on the first step or two of a trek to make sure I’m getting off on the right foot, at which point an occasional glance at the standard map will hopefully suffice. It’s about helping you feel more certain, not about holding your hand the entire way.

Google did a deeper dive on how the tech works here, but in short: it’s taking the view from your camera and sending a compressed version up to the cloud, where it’s analyzed for unique visual features. Google has a good idea of where you are from your phones’ GPS signal, so it can compare the Street View data it has for the surrounding area to look for things it thinks should be nearby — certain building features, statues, or permanent structures — and work backwards to your more precise location and direction. There’s also a bunch of machine learning voodoo going on here to ignore things that might be prominent but not necessarily permanent (like trees, large parked vehicles, and construction.)

The feature is currently rolling out to “Local Guides” for feedback. Local Guides are an opt-in group of users who contribute reviews, photos, and places while helping Google fact check location information in exchange for early access to features like this.

Alas, Google told us repeatedly that it has no idea when it’ll roll out beyond that group.

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Google Maps now shows nearby Lime bikes and scooters in 13 cities

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Google has partnered with Lime to show nearby bikes and scooters in 13 cities worldwide. If there’s a Lime vehicle available nearby, Google Maps will show you how long it will take to get to the vehicle, the estimated price of the ride and total journey time.

Similar to the Uber integration in Google Maps, tapping on Lime will open the Lime app. If you don’t have it installed, you’ll be directed to the Apple App or Google Play store.

This is now live in Auckland, New Zealand, Austin, Texas, Baltimore, Md., Brisbane, Australia, Dallas, Texas, Indianapolis, Ind., Los Angeles, Calif., San Diego, Calif., Oakland, Calif., San Jose, Calif., San Antonio, Texas, Scottsdale, Ariz. and Seattle, Wash. Google says additional cities are in the works.

In September, Lime hit 11.5 million bike and scooter rides after just 14 months in operation. Lime has raised $467 million in funding to date, with its most recent round coming in at $335 million. The round, led by GV, included participation from Uber.

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Google Maps’ new personalized suggestions come to iOS

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A more personalized version of Google Maps is now arriving on iOS. At Google’s I/O developer conference earlier this year, the company introduced a series of new features designed to help Google Maps users learn what’s happening around them, track area businesses to receive updates about their events and promotions, and receive personalized suggestions of places to visit, dine, and more. The latter now appear in a “For You” tab in the revamped Google Maps app, which first arrived on Android this June.

Today, the feature is rolling out more broadly.

According to Google, the “For You” tab is now making its way to over 130  more countries on Android and is launching on iOS across 40+ countries.

When switching over to this tab, you’ll see any number of suggestions – from newly opened places to visit or restaurants to try to new pop-ups – to new menu items at favorite restaurants and restaurant suggestions Google thinks you’d like to try. It bases these on your personal tastes and preferences it’s inferred from your use of the Google Maps app, including what sort of businesses you search and follow.

The “For You” tab can also help you with travel planning, by making suggestions of places before you depart, Google notes.

To get better recommendations, you’ll want to follow local businesses you like in Google Maps, or even neighborhoods you frequent, to personalize your suggestions further.

The feature is part of a larger overhaul of Google Maps that’s aiming to challenge Facebook as the place where businesses offer updates of their goings-on, news about their sales, events, and other information they want to share with customers – as well as target potential new customers through ads and being featured in users’ recommendations.

In October, Google Maps launched the “Follow” button for tracking businesses, and last month rolled out a new “Google My Business” app for business owners, so they could more easily create and publish content to their business profile on Google.

With these products in place – content publication tools and the ability for users to follow that content – Google is now ready to turn those signals into personalized suggestions. You’ll find it at the bottom of the Google Maps app, where it will show you potential “matches” (and the percentage for the match), plus news about recent openings, trending spots, and other suggestions.

The company says the “For You” tab is rolling out starting today across the new markets and on iOS.

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Google has acquired one of India’s most popular train tracking apps

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Google is increasing its efforts in India after it snapped up the team behind popular transportation app ‘Where is my Train.’

The app claims 10 million registered users and, as the name suggests, it helps commuters track arrivals and departures as well as buying seats. That’s no small job given that India is estimated to operate some 14,000 trains on a daily basis across the country. The app is for Android, it works offline or with poor connectivity and supports eight languages. It is rivaled by VC-backed companies like RailYatri and iXigo.

There’s no official price for the deal, although India’s Economic Times is reporting that it is in the region of $30-$40 million. The site reported on Google’s interest back in August, when it wrote that other suitors included Chinese smartphone maker Xiaomi. A Google spokesperson confirmed the deal to TechCrunch, but declined to provide a price.

Sigmoid Labs, the company that develops the train app, was founded by four former TiVo executives in 2013. Economic Times reports that it has around 10 staff. It is unclear how much money it has raised to date.

The company told customers news of the acquisition on its website earlier today.

“We can think of no better place to help us achieve our mission, and we’re excited to join Google to help bring technology and information into more people’s hands,” its founders wrote.

Google said that the Where is my Train team would “continue to build on the current offering,” so it seems that the app won’t be shuttered, immediately at least.

The service’s significant userbase would suggest that Google might look to develop and expand its scope to perhaps touch on other areas. Ride-hailing apps, for example, have moved into adjacent spaces including entertainment, payments and food delivery to take advantage of their position as daily apps.

That’s all conjecture at this point. But it also stands to reason that Google could fold it into other apps, including Google Maps, although that certainly isn’t the plan at this point.

Screenshots of Where is my Train Android app from the Google Play Store

The deal falls under Google’s ‘Next Billion User’ division which is developing products and services to help increase internet adoption in emerging markets. To date that has focused strongly on India where Google has developed data-friendly ‘lite’ versions of popular apps like YouTube, and initiatives like public WiFi for India’s rail network that’s used by over eight million people.

That scope has also covered services, with Google looking at apps that provide information and utility to Indian consumers. Google launched an on-demand app and a mobile payment service last year, and this year it released a neighborhood Q&A service. The Where is my Train deal certainly fits that strategy and you’d imagine it’ll become a core part of Google’s consumer-facing product line in India.

The deal is also one of the most significant to date for a U.S-based tech firm in India. Facebook, Twitter, Google and even Yahoo have made acquisitions to build teams or acquire talent but Where is my Train seems significantly more strategic as a product.

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