Code Vigorous

Dustin J. Mitchell

Google Dependency..

16 Sep 2012

I have a Google-branded Samsung Nexus, runny Jelly Bean. It’s a decent phone, except that its GPS requires a small nuclear reactor to power it.

Today S and I drove back from a weekend trip to New Haven, CT. Google let us down pretty badly.

First, on the way out, I had used the navigation feature (which requires GPS, not just Google Location Service) for most of the day. I have a power adapter in the car, and the phone was plugged in the whole time. Still, after about 6 hours, the phone’s battery was at about 10% – having started at a full charge when we left. I forgot to plug it in where we spent the night, so it was dead in the morning. No problem – I only need to navigate home, so I’ll just plug it in!

And here we reach the first problem. This phone takes 4-6 minutes to start up. Which means either I key in my destination while already on the highway, or sit in the car for 4-6 minutes while my phone starts up. Bear in mind that during most of that startup time, it has a blank screen with no backlight, and sometimes startup crashes, so it’s a bit of a psychological game to resist popping out the battery early.

Fine, so it starts up, I start the navigation application, and hit “Go Home”. It plots a route, I take off, get on the highway, and the phone dies. At this point I do the math – if my phone went from 100% to 10% in 6 hours while navigating, then it requires the combined power of both the battery and the adapter to run the navigation app. So I dutifully hand the phone to S to start back up and hit the “Go Home” button again. I immediately turn off the backlight and hope for the best. The navigation voice tells me to head South for 40 miles, and then I hear nothing.

This should have been a red flag, but I was too busy composing this blog entry in my head to do a little more arithmetic: Albany is not South of New Haven. A half-hour later, S checked her iPhone and pointed out we were heading the wrong direction.

I pulled over and checked my phone. Surprisingly, it was still on! However, it was navigating to Waters View, NY, which is not where we live. We live at Waters View Circle, Cohoes, NY. Google knows this. It’s set in the navigation app. It turns out that Google takes the string you type in for your home address and hits the API equivalent of the “I’m feeling lucky” button, and you’re off to the races. Perhaps not the races you were looking for. This is the same fundamental flaw as plagues Google Now. If you’re in, say, Springfield, MA, but for whatever reason the location-aware “I’m feeling lucky” feels Springfield, IL is the more relevant search result, you get Springfield, IL’s weather. And it helpfully just says “Springfield” on the card, so you don’t know anything’s wrong until it claims there’s torrential rains on a clear day.

At this point we killed my phone and navigated the old-fashioned way - getting directions on the iPhone and following the relevant signs. It turns out we had a great drive along the Taconic State Parkway, which is a far sight more interesting than I-90, so that was OK. And we only lost an hour of drive-time.

Aside from the battery-life issues, which are not surprising from Samsung, but are surprising from a phone with “Google” on the back, there’s an important point here: Google’s approach to problems is to throw gargantuan amounts of data and CPU at them, and hope the answer’s right. That’s fine for search, but when it comes down to building a reliable personal device, people need something a little more deterministic. Google is increasingly heading toward personalized computing – Google Glass being the ultimate expression – and I think the company has a lot to learn before any of that will be more than an amusingly daft automaton.