MapQuest continues expanding turn-by-turn apps, fueled by Apple's endorsement

Sixteen years after its digital navigation services first rolled out across the Web, MapQuest made a dramatic return to the consumer consciousness last fall when Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL) CEO Tim Cook publicly recommended the voice-guided, turn-by-turn MapQuest for iOS application as a substitute for the much-criticized Apple Maps platform. MapQuest downloads surged following Cook's endorsement, and the firm has continued building on that momentum in the six months since: Last year, MapQuest added traffic-sensitive routing to both its iPhone and Android apps, automatically optimizing routes based on travel conditions when the user begins navigation, and earlier this month, the company further enhanced its mobile services by checking live conditions every few minutes, making on-the-fly adjustments in response to congestion, accidents or other obstacles. All rerouting is handled automatically and motorists are alerted to any changes using simple spoken instructions, guaranteeing their full attention remains focused on the road ahead.

AOL-owned MapQuest's real-time traffic coverage now spans more than 200,000 miles of roadways across North America--its mobile apps also deliver walking directions, simplified search for restaurants, gas stations and related destinations, and other traveler tools. FierceDeveloper contributor Jason Ankeny spoke to MapQuest General Manager Brian McMahon and Head of Mobile Engineering Ty Beltramo about the updated app, building for iOS and Android and the evolving definition of what it means to be a successful developer.

Brian McMahon, Ty Beltramo

Ty Beltramo (left) and Brian McMahon

Brian McMahon on adding traffic-optimized rerouting for mobile users: We know that traffic information is a critical component of the user experience, and we wanted to start doing it on a more advanced basis. It's all based on feedback from consumers and employees--people telling us it would be cool if the app did this or did that. That started the process. We toyed with [traffic-optimized rerouting] for a few months, launched an initial version a few revs ago, dug in deeper and made it more advanced.

Ty Beltramo: We've implemented a real-time traffic feed that tells us what's going on every couple of minutes--then we crunch that data, and overlay it across a grid. We know all the posted speed limits, we know the historical speeds at all times of the day, and we know if there's a particular stretch where the speed limit is 55 but might go down to 40 at particular time of day. We have so much information we can use, and if the delta meets certain thresholds, then we change your route. If we can save you five minutes or trim 5 percent of time off your trip, we reroute you.

McMahon: Users have had the ability to reroute themselves manually for a long time. But people don't have time to manage traffic on their iPhone while they're driving. We're trying to catch people that shouldn't be playing with that type of feature or don't want to do that. We're giving them information about traffic before they hit it.

Beltramo: We're not doing this blindly. We check the data every five minutes. You don't have to take any action. Just pay attention and listen.

Traffic for MapQuest

MapQuest features a traffic report.

McMahon on developing simultaneous updates for iOS and Android: We see them as equally important. We're seeing growth on both sides and getting feedback from both sides, so we're trying to keep them on equal footing.

Beltramo: A lot of this work--a lot of the complexity and hard thinking--is not on the mobile client but in their back office. In terms of making traffic comparisons and determining thresholds, that's all implemented on the back end, so the same code base is implementable on both OSes. It's not hard to do: It's the same logic, and the same people did all the work.

We're very fortunate to have talented engineers, so we don't separate the work between iOS and Android. People float between each platform and team up for different projects, and we're always comparing the two. We believe in keeping parity.  

McMahon on consumer feedback: The response to [the update] has been pretty dramatic. We're trying to delight users, and we've had a bunch of users and colleagues come to us and say "There was a traffic incident up ahead, and the app routed me around it."

We rely on user feedback to make the product better. We're always asking questions like "What is the right amount of time you need to reroute someone? Is it saving five minutes, 10 minutes or some percentage off their total travel time?"

Beltramo: We pay very close attention to what people are saying on forums, blogs and stores. We comb through that stuff. We sell this product to our families and friends--we're always talking about it. Official feedback is important, but so is unofficial feedback from people we know. We can see themes of what people want to see change and what features they wish were there.

McMahon on future improvements: We've made an incredible amount of progress in mobile over last year--not just in terms of making sure the app works better, but also from a feature perspective. We have bigger things in pipeline that will blow this [update] out of the water. We also just launched an in-app purchase system for people who want the product but don't want the ads. There's more IAP to come.

Beltramo: We've also been focusing a lot on map quality and route quality. We're working a lot on animations and visual effects--when users have fewer distractions, they see things more clearly. We've also added better messaging when you arrive at your location, and we're continuing to work on integration with our mobile website.

There's a lot more on the roadmap, but we're starting to create an ecosystem where tools on the desktop will have greater availability and value on mobile. Instead of a disjointed experience, we're making it more seamless.

McMahon: We've spent a lot of time digging in and making sure the routing algorithms get better. What you're seeing now is that we're shifting gears and getting into offensive mode--you're going to see more advanced functionality and features. At the same time we're doing this in mobile, we're also doing a ton of stuff on the desktop. We just launched a bunch of new products. As time goes on, you'll see desktop tools and mobile apps that are more closely related.

McMahon on the impact of Apple CEO Tim Cook's endorsement: Obviously we saw a massive spike following his comments. It also caused a lot of people to come back and look at our app. People are liking what they see, and they're staying with us. We're seeing more and more engagement.

We were very happy Apple felt we were strong enough to recommend. We're also working with them on several initiatives.


MapQuest for iPhone

Beltramo: We're integrating MapQuest navigation into Apple Maps. In the current Apple Maps app, there are three routing options: Driving, walking and other. We're going to be an alternative navigation provider: You click a button, and Apple will provide a list of registered apps that provide functionality that adheres to the Apple Maps protocol. That's coming in the next release.

Beltramo's advice for aspiring mobile developers: Before you could just be a good engineer and be a successful mobile developer. That's not true any more. Now you have to understand the business. You have to understand the market and you have to understand how to work with business people. Being a crack engineer who knows everything about code is still important for certain apps, but today, developers have to be more well-rounded. You can't only know about creating products--you also have to know how to talk to people and communicate with them.

In the iOS world, users are so picky about the details of your implementation--not just if your app is engineered properly, but also if it's designed for value. You have to know how to build a great app, not just great software. You have to offer a great user experience and great value, and if your app doesn't look great, nothing else matters. Developers just need to get out there, build apps and experience the whole lifecycle. There's no way to learn it except by doing it.

Check out our previous workshops on Shazam, InfoMedia, Viigo, Meet Now Live, Shortcovers, Pint Sized Mobile, Geodelic, Spark of Blue Software, Tarver Games, People Operating Technology, Booyah, Bolt Creative, Thwapr,Monkeyland Industries, Rocket Racing League, Vlingo, Advanced Mobile Protection, PapayaMobile, Taptu, GameHouse, Avatron, aisle411, Crowdstory, Outfit7, ADP, Locai, The PlayForge, Universal Mind, Khush, MindJolt SGN, Matchbook, Next One's on Me, Out of the Park Developments, WhosHere, Roaming Hunger, Inside News360, RotoWire, Glympse, PlayFirst, PicsArt and Digisocial.