Thursday, June 1, 2000

Maps on your Palm device? Get lost!


By Kevin Quin

Judging from the empty gray space on the map I downloaded to my Palm device, I'd think that Gertrude Stein's casually acidic description of Oakland, "There is no there there," applied pretty well to my situation. But in fact, there was a there there, it's just that MapBlast didn't know it.

"There," in this case, was not a city, but Mickie Gordon Regional Park, a cluster of woods, baseball diamonds, and soccer fields outside Middleburg, Virginia. As I stood in the middle of it, my Palm organizer displayed a map downloaded from MapBlast (at, one of two Web sites that will install and display routes and maps on your Palm unit.

Now, I admit that MapBlast's service--like that of its better-known competitor, MapQuest (at free, and since beggars can't be choosers, perhaps I shouldn't complain. However, Middleburg, which for decades has hosted the hunt country homes of Washington's movers and shakers, is not exactly the back of beyond. As such, I had been hoping for a route map that would show more at the end of the Yellow Brick Road than the modern-day equivalent of "Here be Dragons."

MapQuest wasn't much better. It put a gray block on the map, but gave it the mysterious label, "Mercer Park."

Good thing I already knew where I was.

Less than stellar cartography

Therein lies the problem with both these services. While they are typically fast to download and easy to use, they suffer from the major defect that they're often just plain wrong. That isn't the fault of the Palm device version of these packages. Your handheld simply downloads a Palm device-friendly version of the same maps and routes that the Web sites would display on your PC. The problem is in the services themselves, which sometimes simply can't find a destination. Even when they do, they often don't seem to understand that the shortest distance between two points is a straight line.

At least they're easy to use, so that when they pick the right route, installation on your Palm device is a breeze. The only thing you'll need is AvantGo, a software package that allows your organizer to store and display Web sites. I'll talk more about AvantGo, one of the few must-have programs for us low-tech folks, in a future column.

How it's done

Both sites offer stand-alone maps or routes with turn-by-turn directions. With MapQuest, the better known of the two services, simply go to the main Web site, pictured in Figure A, and select either Maps or Driving Directions.