I was recently contacted by a Toronto Star reporter for an article she was writing about paper maps vs. GPS for navigation (Map publishers facing a rough road, Aug. 19, 2011). She was asking whether I thought people used or needed paper maps anymore and if they would still be around in five years. I thought it was an interesting question, and told her how I still have a collection of paper maps in my own car. They almost never get used, as I tend to rely on my iPhone (I quite like GPS Drive by MotionX, as I can pay as I go, one month at a time), but I keep them there (along with a good old-fashioned compass) just in case my phone stops working. I love technology, but I’m not ready to rely on it 100%, especially when I’m driving into parts unknown, where cellular coverage may be spotty or non-existent. Yes, the iPhone assisted GPS will work without a cell signal, but the navigation and mapping apps won’t be able to download data, which makes the GPS location pretty much useless. One way to get around this is to download map data ahead of time, using apps like Avenza’s PDF Maps, which I plan to test the next time I’m travelling outside of Canada and want to use my iPhone’s GPS without incurring exorbitant data roaming charges.
To get back to the reporter’s question, I predicted that paper maps would not go away anytime soon. Even though we all tend to rely on technology more all the time, and mobile map usage is growing fast (the number of smartphone map users increased 75 percent over the last year in the U.S. according to a recent comScore report) I pointed out that only about one third of Canadians and Americans own a smartphone (32.8% in Canada, 32.2% in the U.S. according to another recent comScore report). I mentioned that this is a form of digital divide, since smartphones are more costly to buy and use, and that we can’t assume that everyone has one. We also talked about built-in GPS options on new cars but, again, this is still a relatively premium option. I imagine the adoption rates will increase over the next few years (for both smartphones and built-in GPS), but I still can’t see a day where I will throw out my trusty paper maps and compass – they don’t get used much anymore, but I’m still glad I have them!