Two months ago, in Bringing Your Own Maps, I went off on an atypical excursion into the realms of location-based applications and how an iPhone developer would need to license data from providers to develop apps that provide turn-by-turn directions or other routing and location-based search functionality.
That was your hint that I was up to something.
As I’ve been blurbing it:
Next Exit is the safe, sane way to find gas, food, and lodging along US highways, with a no-fuss, one-thumb interface
Allow me to explain further:
Why Do I Need a Special-Purpose Map App?
To pin down why I wrote this app, I’ll go back to a Summer trip to California with the family. We were driving back from Disneyland to San Diego and needed to get something for the insanely picky kids to eat. As it turns out, California doesn’t have those blue “services at the next exit” signs that are common elsewhere in the country (well, in every state between Michigan and Florida, at least). I-5 also had no billboards in this stretch. So, short of actually managing to see the elusive Taco Bell itself before passing the exit, there was no practical way to figure out where to get off.
So, yeah, I did the obvious thing and searched the Maps application for “Taco Bell”. While driving. Not smart.
This sucks for a couple of reasons… the most obvious being the driver distraction and the vastly increased likelihood you’ll crash into someone or something while fussing with the phone. But even if you do manage to send off a search, the results are sub-optimal: it will search where you are, not where you’re going, meaning it’s just as likely that you’ll get results five miles off your current route, or even behind you, as it is likely to find results that you can actually use.
Most people on long freeway drives want services that are right there on the highway. This means a search needs to be a lot smarter:
- Figure out what road the user is on and what way he or she is going
- Figure out where that road goes
- Find exits along that road
- Find services of certain types within a certain distance of those exits
Next Exit is the app that provides that kind of search.
Let’s Watch the Video
At this point, let me point you to the video demo that I prepared for the App Star contest. They wanted something around 30 seconds, which I submitted as the short version, but this longer version is still under a minute and shows off more stuff:
Gee, That Doesn’t Look So Hard
Then there’s an even deeper question of how you even solve this problem. The mapping APIs are largely written from the point of view of “given a starting point and a destination, find a route.” But the question posed by this app is “given a starting point and a direction, find potential destinations.” My initial version searched ahead for exits, drawing lines between the furthest ones to account for turns in the road, but could get thrown off when the current highway meets another, as the other highway’s exits onto the current highway ended up in the search results and weren’t practical to remove. In the end, I developed a complex but more reliable system of finding road segments for the current freeway, arranging them to create a path, and then searching this path for exits. I’ll be writing more about this geo-logic in future updates.
Oh, and remember: I don’t have the luxury of doing these searches on a local database. This is all back-and-forth with MapQuest’s web server, swapping and parsing XML.
Also, MapQuest seems eager to work with developers and to understand the iPhone App Store market. They brought an engineer to a sales call with me, and he helped me figure out the find-and-arrange-segments logic that cured the early prototypes’ tendency to turn off onto unrelated interstates. So far, I’m really liking working with them.
So When Does It Go On Sale?
I have one more major task to account for: in-app purchase. Since the use of the MapQuest service will create an ongoing cost for however long copies of the app remain in use, a free or one-time payment model is not going to work. A subscription model is more appropriate: pay as you go, stop paying if you stop using it.
The elaborate, turn-by-turn, singing-and-dancing apps like Tom Tom and Navigon are going for $100. Next Exit does a lot less – by design – and therefore should cost less. So I’m keeping it impulse-worthy:
- $1.99 for the app and three months of service
- $4.99 for each 12 months of service thereafter
Folks, that’s less than the cost of an upsized value meal… and with Next Exit, you’ll be able to find the road-side restaurants with the value meals you like, not the ones you’ll just settle for!
Anyways, with hopes of finishing in-app purchase (and an audit-trail server on my end… groan), finalizing things with MapQuest, and getting things through the App Store review process in the next few weeks, I’ve got a fighting chance of getting this out before people hit the roads for the holiday travel season. Or, if it comes out after Christmas, there’ll just be that many more new iPhones in play, looking for useful apps.
More, much more, to follow. For now, fingers are crossed that the Apps Star jury will like what they see. The prize in their contest is free publicity… exactly what a new app needs!