Google targets online wannabes with offline maps and lightweight browsers

At I/O '15, Google exec also touts recent Project Loon successes

project loon

Google's quest to reach the billion or so people in the world who still can't connect to the Internet has produced several novel wireless technologies to make up for slow or poor networks.

One big idea coming later this year will allow Google Maps to work offline, according to a Google executive in remarks made Thursday. Once a map is downloaded over a slower wireless connection, it can be stored and still function in many of the ways it would with a network connection -- a user would still be able to find locations on the stored map, including reviews of stores and their opening hours.

"Google is committed to making our products work well for the next billion" people wanting Internet connections, said Jen Fitzpatrick, vice president of product management for Google Maps during the Google I/O keynote on Thursday. She didn't offer many details on Google Maps running offline, but described the idea at a high level.

Google engineers have recently been able to make turn-by-turn Google Map directions work offline as well, she said. "We're working hard to make Google apps work offline so they won't suck down expensive data or don't have to have super-reliable connectivity every time you want to be somewhere," Fitzpatrick added.

She demonstrated using Google Maps in Mexico City offline in airplane mode on an Android smartphone, finding a restaurant on a city map by name and then producing some of the reviews.

Other techniques Google is trying out include a streamlined version of the Chrome browser that is 10 times smaller than typical Chrome versions. In Indonesia, Google found that it typically took 20 seconds over an older 2G wireless connection to load 1MB of data. But by optimizing connections, users could load a page four times faster.

Also, Google is working with faster and lighter memory requirements for cheaper phones, even those with just 512 MB of RAM. "You can save any page you visit...for later offline access," Fitzgerald said.

While Youtube is extremely popular, even in developing countries, it relies on video that puts a heavy load on bandwidth, Fitzgerald noted. She said users in some countries where Google is at work have been able to view Youtube videos offline with new Google technology -- even where there is no Internet connection.

"Access to good information can change people's lives, but connectivity is often a real challenge or data is too expensive to it make practical to use in large quantities or data transmissions are slow, taking minutes for the loading of a map," Fitzgerald said.

Google is also providing Android One smartphones to users in India, using three manufacturing partners there, Fitzgerald said. She called them "high quality smartphones at a great value."

The company has also been working with 10 Android One manufacturers in five other countries: Nepal, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, the Philippines and Turkey. The phones include features such as an FM radio, dual SIM cards and the latest version of Android.

Chromebooks are also making Internet access in many places affordable for students, offering features such as all-day battery life for under $100. "Chromebooks have incredible traction," she noted.

One of Google's highly publicized and unusual experiments for wireless connectivity, Project Loon, recently hit some milestones, said Sundar Pichai, senior vice president of products, in remarks near the end of the keynote address.

Live tests of Project Loon balloons in New Zealand have shown they can provide LTE speeds of 10Mbps that can cover an area the size of Rhode Island and can be controlled by a single base station. The balloons also can stay aloft as long as 100 days, he added.

"Projects like these are at the heart of what we try to do," Pichai said. "This is why I/O is so exciting for us."

This story, "Google targets online wannabes with offline maps and lightweight browsers" was originally published by Computerworld.