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Google's Free Mobile GPS for Android is Great, But is it Fair?

There are a lot of nifty features on the new Motorola Droid, Verizon Wireless’ latest attempt to derail the unstoppable iPhone. But the one that stands out most for me is Google Maps Navigation (Beta). It delivers spoken turn-by-turn directions (including street names) for free. If people thought Pure Digital should be threatened by Apple integrating a camcorder into its iPod nano or iPhone, multiply that fear by 100 for any company that makes a GPS app or standalone navigation device.

Granted, Sprint includes GPS navigation in its all-you-can-eat data plans, but usually this service can cost $9.99 per month through the likes of TeleNav GPS Navigator or VZ Navigator. To get this functionality on the iPhone, you can pay the same subscription fee for AT&T Navigator (powered by TeleNav), or pay a one-time fee of $89.99 for Navigon’s MobileNavigator or $99.99 for TomTom for iPhone. But now that you can get a good navigation experience for nothing, it’s going to be hard for other companies to justify paying a premium. No wonder TomTom’s stock dropped over 20 percent yesterday.

Things look especially bleak at the moment for Garmin. The company decided to skip the app store route on the iPhone and go it alone with its own device, the nüvifone. This smart phone costs a whopping $399 before rebate, and while it offers a very good navigation experience, it doesn’t hold a candle to the $100 cheaper iPhone 3GS (32GB) when it comes to Web browsing, messaging, or entertainment. Now, here comes Google Maps Navigation, which will be available on the Droid and, presumably, any other Android phone that debuts with, or gets updated to, the 2.0 software. Not surprisingly, Garmin’s stock tumbled more than 16 percent yesterday as well.

So how good is Google Maps Navigation? On our Motorola Droid tests, the app calculated our route quickly, and the GPS positioning was highly accurate. Cleverly, Google presents a photo-realistic Street View (when available) during a turn, and you can add helpful layers such as ATMs, restaurants, satellite view, traffic, and more. I especially like how easy it is to search by a contact’s name or address. The female voice that provides directions sounds robotic, but it gets the job done. We did lose our connection for several seconds at one point, so the fact that you’re relying on a cell phone signal for accurate directions will be a turnoff for some.

Of course, the likes of Navigon, TeleNav, TomTom, and VZ Navigator all offer unique features you can’t find in Google’s beta service. For example, VZ Navigator lets you look up events and movies near you, and it better integrates traffic to offer alternate routes. And Navigon provides a unique Reality View Pro feature that helps you navigate difficult interchanges, along with more advanced route planning, and daytime and nighttime view modes. Nevertheless, Google’s entry will likely upend the GPS market because it delivers the functionality most users need, and it will only get more robust over time.

Now here’s the trickiest question. Is it fair that Google can offer something for free, bundling it with the phones that use its software, when other companies with much shallower pockets need to charge money in order to survive? As a consumer, I could care less. In fact, I’m hoping that Google brings this service to the iPhone too, something the company didn’t rule out when speaking to BusinessWeek. But it doesn’t seem in a hurry to implement Google Maps Navigation into other devices either, since that would mean giving up a competitive advantage for Android.

However, when I take a step back, there are some parallels between what Google is doing now and the hot water Microsoft got in for bundling its browser with Windows. Google can say that Android isn’t its software, and that it really belongs to the members of the Open Handset Alliance, but the Droid and other phones like it are called Google Experience devices for a reason. It’s Google’s operating system, and they’re adding a feature that puts the competition at an incredible disadvantage. How do you think that $34.99 ALK Technologies CoPilot Live app is going to fare now in the Android Market?

I don’t think what Google is doing is illegal, but when you give something away that used to be expensive while ostensibly limiting consumer choice, I’m not sure whether I’d call it progress or foul play.

Editor-in-chief Mark Spoonauer directs LAPTOP's online and print editorial content and has been covering mobile and wireless technology for over a decade. Each week Mark's SpoonFed column provides his insights and analysis of the biggest mobile trends and news. You can also follow him on twitter.

Responsible for the editorial vision for Laptop Mag and Tom's Guide, Mark Spoonauer has been Editor in Chief of LAPTOP since 2003 and has covered technology for nearly 15 years. Mark speaks at key tech industry events and makes regular media appearances on CNBC, Fox and CNN. Mark was previously reviews editor at Mobile Computing, and his work has appeared in Wired, Popular Science and Inc.