Government // Mobile & Wireless
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1/6/2013
04:26 PM
Larry Seltzer
Larry Seltzer
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Google Maps Mess: Windows Phone to Regain Access

Google's failure to come clean about the Google Maps Mobile site's treatment of Windows Phone is an embarrassing spectacle. The company's various explanations for why Internet Explorer on Windows Phone cannot visit Google Maps don't survive any real scrutiny, and the truth appears to be unflattering.

The controversy over Google's apparently deliberate maltreatment of Windows Phone users is more of a public relations scandal than anything technical. The company can't seem to make up its mind what it has done or what to say about it. Google announced that it will remove the behavior, but it has reaped a whirlwind of scrutiny that won't subside easily.

Windows Phone users who try to browse the Google Maps mobile site get redirected to the Google home page. Based on my testing, it seems that this redirection occurs for any browser based on Microsoft's Trident browser layout engine. I tested Internet Explorer, Metro Web Browser and SurfCube 3D Browser, all based on Trident and all got redirected. Opera Mini, which uses its own Presto engine, gets through to Google Maps, as do Firefox with its Gecko engine and — of course — Google's and other WebKit-based browsers.

This was initially a small part of a column I wrote last week, but other people noticed the redirection as well and it turned into scandal of sorts. The explanation I first got from Google was that they redirected all non-WebKit browsers but, as I detailed above, this turned out to be false.

This is Google's most recent (as of Sunday afternoon) statement on the issue:

"We periodically test Google Maps compatibility with mobile browsers to make sure we deliver the best experience for those users.

In our last test, IE mobile still did not offer a good maps experience with no ability to pan or zoom and perform basic map functionality. As a result, we chose to continue to redirect IE mobile users to Google.com where they could at least make local searches. The Firefox mobile browser did offer a somewhat better user experience and that's why there is no redirect for those users.

Recent improvements to IE mobile and Google Maps now deliver a better experience and we are currently working to remove the redirect. We will continue to test Google Maps compatibility with other mobile browsers to ensure the best possible experience for users."

So they are admitting they have been bouncing IE on Windows Phone specifically, and we know that really means all Trident browsers. If they are bouncing any other browsers they aren't saying and I haven't found any.

Google also insists, although not in a statement, that this redirection has been in place and that it hasn't made any changes to this behavior for a long time. They do hint at it in the statement where they say that "...we chose to continue to redirect IE mobile users..." This is contradicted by multiple reports from users that it used to work in the past. I can also say that when I discovered the redirection shortly after Christmas, the redirection target was an informational site about Google mobile apps.

So not only has Google made changes to the redirection behavior recently, they have changed it very recently. And worse, the site is especially useless for Windows Phone users, so Google's claim that they redirected to the Google home page to be helpful to IE users seems particularly galling.

Combine all this with a Google blog from May, 2011 by Google Software Engineer Alireza Ali which says "Google Maps for mobile browsers is platform independent - you will always get a consistent experience and the latest features without needing to install any updates, no matter what phone you use" and Google seems to be all over the map on this.

Combine it with all the other practices I described in my column last week — the end of Calendar Sync, poor support for the CalDAV standard on which non-Google Calendar users must rely, their refusal to provide Microsoft access to YouTube metadata, and a general refusal to write apps for Windows Phone — and it's hard not to conclude that Google is intentionally giving Windows Phone users a bad experience.

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