IN CASE YOU MISSED IT

Wrong to kill features on the quiet

This story was first published in The Straits Times on July 31, 2013

The night before we left for Hong Kong two weeks ago, I proudly told my wife I had planned and mapped out our itinerary.

Outlet shopping? Check. Dim sum at Tim Ho Wan? Done, and I even included two of its outlets, just to taste the difference. Wonton noodles at Tsim Chai Kee, across from the overrated Mak's Noodles, was also on the cards, as was shopping for dried goods in Sheung Wan.

Everything was saved to My Places in Google Maps, so if we were to ever lose our way, there would be no chance that we would get lost.

As I pulled out my Android phone, eager to show off the detailed list of To Do, Eat and Go in Hong Kong I had saved to my profile in the past week, the last reaction I expected was to have her roll her eyes at me.

And it was not because of the 101 things I had crammed into the four-day trip, but because precisely nothing appeared on the Google Maps app on my phone.

Unknown to me, Google rolled out an update, version 7.0.2, to its mobile Maps app earlier that week.

Correction: I must have been aware of the update because I had allowed it on my phone. What I did not realise was that as it updated the app with new features, it also deleted others, one of which was My Places.

Previously, I could save locations on Google Maps and call them up on my phone. I parked all the listings in My Places to make planning for trips much easier.

For some reason, Google decided to kill this feature and do it without prior warning or an announcement that it had been done.

The upshot was every single Hong Kong location I had painstakingly saved was no longer in my phone.

If not for my desire to gloat about my vacation planning skills, I would have ended up in Hong Kong with a useless Google Maps app.

After doing some checking that same night, I came across forums where other users were lamenting the same issue. One recommendation was to uninstall the new app and roll back to an older version of the app that still offered My Places.

But this bait-and-switch should not be the case, as companies cannot offer a feature and sell it to consumers, only to then pull the plug at a later date.

Can you imagine buying a tablet that supports video calls, only to find out the manufacturer plans to delete that function? Or sign up for a cable TV subscription for a set number of channels, only to have the service provider cut the number of channels within a few months?

This is exactly what Google has done. But it is not the first company to do so and will not be the last.

In 2010, Sony updated its PlayStation 3 console so that it would no longer support the installation of other operating systems. A group of users from the US even filed a class action suit against Sony, saying it had disabled features originally advertised as being available for the console.

And earlier this year, Microsoft removed the Video Kinect feature that enabled Xbox 360 owners to have video chats with PC users.

While I understand software updates introduce new features that benefit users, manufacturers and developers must not forget that it is the existing offering that drew in users in the first place.

Fortunately for me, My Places is deleted only from the mobile app and not from the overall Google Maps service, which means I have not had to scramble to find an alternative navigation service, even though I am sorely tempted to.

Is anyone from Google listening?

If I abandon Google Maps, at least it cannot say I did it without warning.

sherwinl@sph.com.sg

This story was first published in The Straits Times on July 31, 2013To subscribe to The Straits Times, please go to http://www.sphsubscription.com.sg/eshop/