The Report

A mobile map that works abroad or in the subway? Yes, it's possible

A mobile map that works abroad or in the subway? Yes, it's possible

Posting in Cities

A new app from Berlin-based navigation company Skobbler stands out, thanks to hybrid navigation technology that works both online and offline.

There was a time when people navigated cities without the help of global positioning satellite (GPS) gadgets or location services on their mobile phones, even if it seems like the distant past. Google and Apple dominate the mobile maps category in the United States, but Berlin-based Skobbler thinks it has something to offer that the big guys don’t.

The innovation it is touting, at least on the consumer side, is called ForeverMap 2, available initially as a mobile application for Android but recently released on Apple iOS ($2.99, but $0.99 for a limited time). Here's the cool part: the sophisticated technology behind ForeverMap 2 lets users fully navigate maps both online and offline.

“It’s what we think a map should look like these days,” says Skobbler cofounder Marcus Thielking. “You don’t have to worry about whether you’re abroad or in the subway. Once you’re abroad, being offline can be an insurmountable obstacle.”

Google Maps does offer limited offline capability on Android devices, but you just get a snapshot of the map, and cannot search or be routed anywhere. Basically, with other offline options, the maps are available for viewing but can't be used interactively for routing or navigation. With Skobbler's ForeverMap 2, you have access to all of this functionality offline, should you need it.

“The user always has a choice,” Thielking says. “It still stays one map, and you just decide which should be offline and which should require online. Say a user downloads California and France because they want to travel there, they can then use it as if they’re online.”

Skobbler was founded in 2008, an offshoot of sorts from German navigation giant Navicon, the former employer of all four partners in the startup. With the advent of the iPhone, mobile maps took off, and Skobbler began with a traditional mapping application. In 2010, however, it switched to a map using data from OpenStreetMap, or an open-source amateur map; and powered by NGx, an advanced vector map engine. The idea was to offer maps at a very low price point.

The company also is targeting other businesses with its core mapping technology. Like U.S. company Map Box, Skobbler can enable other companies to use OpenStreetMap, which offers many strengths that traditional mapping services aren’t good at -- particularly the ability to include anything that’s off the streets. Thielking says Skobbler has seen a lot of proactive interest in this alternative to Google's mapping services. In a purely strategic sense, some companies just don’t want to rely too heavily on Google technology, lest it become a competitor. There is also a certain appeal behind using an independent, open-source product.

“From a tech standpoint,” Thielking notes, “there’s a lot of flexibility when it comes to how the map will look. You can alter design. With Google, you can only alter to a certain degree before it becomes expensive.”

As a result, the use of Skobbler's business-facing technology is growing. Meanwhile, ForeverMap 2 has overtaken every other commercial mobile map application in Germany, and is prolific in the United Kingdom, as well. Although it has some catching up to do in the United States, Skobbler ultimately wants its maps to reach you wherever you are.

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Beth Carter

Contributing Editor

Beth Carter is a freelance journalist based in San Francisco. She has worked for Catalyst magazine, the New York Times Syndicate, BBC Travel and Wired. She holds degrees from the University of Oregon and New York University. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure