Google's mission is to organize the world's information, and when you're driving in a crowded metro area, knowing your way around and what traffic conditions are like can be very important information indeed. A new free service from Google lets you get directions and traffic info, as long as you have a cell phone that can accommodate it.
You can download Google Maps using your phone's Web browser. Samsung SPH-A940 cellphone seen here.
I tested the Google Maps service on the Sprint network using a Samsung SPH-A940 and on Cingular Wireless using a BlackBerry 8700c. When you load the service, you get a menu that you can use to find a business, find a location, get directions, or see a satellite view. Traffic data works by color coding: Roads that are green are running at the speed limit, yellow designates some congestion, and red indicates a traffic jam. Traffic data is turned on by default, but you can turn it off.
If you select a location, you'll see the general area around it, but you can easily scroll out to see a larger portion of the area. You also can use your phone's arrow keys to scroll around the map.
Another option is "get directions," which requires you to enter your starting point and destination. You get a route overview with distance, the time it should normally take, and the traffic delay time. The phone displays a map along with directions. Each time you need the next stage of your directions, you hit the "3" button on your phone for "Next."
To test the device, I plotted a route for a Bay Area drive from Palo Alto to Berkeley along the busy Highway 101. When I checked the map, it showed mostly green with some yellow along portions of the corridor between Palo Alto and San Francisco, and then patches of red in San Francisco and on the approach to the Bay Bridge. To see if the map was correct I called the traffic department at KCBS (the AM news station where I do daily tech reports); according to the traffic coordinator, all of the congested spots I saw matched what she had from her maps.
That's the good news. The bad news is that it's dangerous to use Mobile Maps while driving. The other problem is that it's hard to get a good overview of the area as well as advice on alternative routes. Also, Google Mobile Maps doesn't use GPS even with a GPS-enabled cell phone, so you have to use the arrow keys to track your trip, and you're on your own for finding your exact location.
Still, if you know the area and alternative routes--and don't mind pulling over to check your directions--Google Mobile Maps is a useful service to have, and it can help you reach your destination a little faster.