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For all the talk about the benefits of cloud-based services, a recent trend has seen many location vendors offering local storage of maps and/or allowing navigation to continue when – temporarily – out of wireless coverage. It seems like the industry has finally come to terms with reality – with the help of their customers – in acknowledging that wireless coverage and connectivity still isn’t as good as it should be. While this is true for regular navigation use, it is even more critical for outdoor navigation applications such as skiing or mountain climbing. In Europe in particular high data roaming tariffs have also held back the adoption of online mapping and offboard navigation.
Some examples of recent product launches and offerings:
Google Maps / Google Maps Navigation – The latest iteration of Google Maps for mobile for Android phones includes an offline feature proactively caching maps of frequently visited areas. In turn Google Maps Navigation now allows offline rerouting when a turn is missed and the connection is lost. However, a connection is still required when starting a new route.
Skobbler’s ForeverMap - The latest release of Germany-based Skobbler’s ForeverMap allows installing maps for individual countries offline. Address search, location finder, route calculation for pedestrians or cars and information on places of interest are also available offline.
Augmentra’s Viewranger - UK-based outdoor navigation vendor Augmentra recently added access to online maps such as OpenStreetMap (Road, cycling, terrain, skiing tracks) and Bing Maps (road and aerial) as well as a local caching feature. It provides an alternative for the very expensive topographical maps.
Fullpower’s MotionX GPS – Fullpower’s successful outdoor and fitness application allows caching road, terrain, and marine maps.

It is interesting to see some vendors provide tools to monitor and manage the on-board storage of maps. Viewranger includes settings allowing specifying the maximum cached data volume and storage duration after which the downloaded data is deleted. Ways to download off-line maps vary widely. Viewranger automatically downloads maps at the right zoom and detail level when hovering over them. While Skobbler allows downloading entire countries, MotionX GPS allows specifying circular areas and corridors. Google has been more vague about how maps are cached locally, stating on their blog that ” Maps will automatically start caching the areas you visit the most when your device is plugged in and connected to Wi-Fi.” It is also important to remember that vendors such as Telmap have offered a limited caching feature for many years.

The major issue with cached maps across a wide range of zoom levels is the volume of the data which can easily reach several Gigabytes for medium-sized cities. While smartphones ship with increasingly larger amounts of built-in memory, Google has preferred to wait with caching until the launch of vectorized maps allowing extensive zoom levels without blowing up the size of the cached maps.

Obviously what we are seeing here is the gradual move towards hybrid solutions combining the unlimited access to always up-to-date on-line maps and services wherever and whenever possible and the ability to cache maps locally when required. This form of side-loading and caching map data over Wi-Fi or wirelessly during off-peak also provides a way to reduce volume of wireless data downloads which is favorable for both end users and carriers which are desperately looking to reduce the loads on their networks. At the same time this constitutes a threat for the traditional on-board map licensing model with further pricing erosion driven by the widespread availability of quickly improving, free and in some cases very detailed OpenStreetMap data.