If you follow my blog you may have detected I'm not a big fan of Google in some ways, but they do get some things incredibly, awesomely correct. (Like, of course, basic search, which is the big thing they got incredibly awesomely correct, and the main reason they're now very rich).
One of these things is Google Maps for mobile. Having a nicely designed Google maps app for your phone is neat enough, but it has for me one absolutely killer feature - walking and transit directions.
I don't drive, never have, probably never will. Luckily I live in Vancouver, where the transit is really good (people in Vancouver who've never left don't believe this; I tell them to go to any mid-sized American city and try getting anywhere on the bus). Google's quite recently started integrating transit information in many cities, including Vancouver; Google maps has basically the schedules for the entire Greater Vancouver transit system programmed into it.
So, this morning I woke up at a friend's house in Burnaby, with only a vague notion of where the hell it was (someone drove me there, I don't ask questions). A year ago I'd have had to find out the address then fight with Translink's hideous trip planning site to find out how to get home. It's got a crappy interface, it's horribly slow, and it gives you your final directions as a text list with a tiny, ugly, static map attached. Woo frickin' hoo. I hated that thing.
Ten years ago I'd have...well, I'd have had to ask someone. Who probably wouldn't have known either. Then I could have either called up the transit company's information line (at 6 a.m....heh) and waited for hours, or found out it was closed, before trying to understand and write down the information. Then I'd probably have got lost and taken random buses until I found one that I actually knew. (I've done this in the past.)
Instead, I ran Google maps on my phone, hit menu / get directions, told it to start from wherever the hell I was (GPS integration makes this whole thing ten times more awesome), and wind up at the Skytrain station by my house. It promptly spat back the next three possible journeys, complete with walking instructions to the bus stop. It shows the route as a blue line on the map. I followed the instructions then just sat back and watched the two buses that took me home go whizzing along the little blue line. It even makes it easy to know where to get off a bus you've never taken before.
If you look at this technologically speaking it's easy to lose the awesome. I mean, it's just a simple combination of a few bits: GPS, 3G data, and Google's map and transit information. But the use of it is just so freaking awesome. I've only been using this setup for a couple of weeks and I'd already hate to live without it. I mean, I've got a little box in my pocket that can tell me how to get to anywhere in the metropolitan area, from wherever the crap I am, and plot it out on a really nice map, then show me moving along that map as I go. That's the future happening. Tell people twenty years ago you'd be able to do that in the future and it'd be the best thing ever. Now it's just a little niche use case for technologies everyone's kind of used to already, but that doesn't mean it's not really amazing, if you keep a sense of perspective about it.
So, thank you, Google. And GPS. And transit authorities of the world.