In-Depth

Where the Heck Are We?

Microsoft's MapPoint is a solid business-savvy mapping tool, but it needs more frequent updates.

While there are many mapping tools like MapQuest and Rand McNally, Microsoft MapPoint 2004 is true business software. Easy to customize, MapPoint offers stellar mapping and labeling tools, unparalleled zoom and an easy-to-navigate interface that simplifies finding places and working with maps. In many cases, however, the maps it generates are anywhere from three to seven years out of date.

MapPoint user Ed Bruette, state radio amateur civil emergency service officer for the state of Washington, uses MapPoint along with GPS software to help in emergency management activities. But he says the software is difficult to justify when using it in a newly developed or rural area. The data for those areas is often years behind its competitors.

After buying the 2004 edition, Pete Turner, president of MaidPro of Phoenix, a cleaning services firm in Phoenix, Ariz., discovered the same issue. "In the Phoenix area we have a lot of building going on and I understand that certain developments wouldn't be there," he says. Still, he found highways missing that had been built since 2001.

As Microsoft doesn't have an update program for the maps per se, Turner will be waiting for the next release for more current map data. MapPoint 2006 is due out at the end of April, which means users often wait a full two years for a refresh.

Microsoft MapPoint 2004

Microsoft Corp.
800-426-9400
www.microsoft.com/mappoint

MapPoint 2004: $299

MapPoint Web Service: $8,000 annual access fee

The Wait for Updates
Microsoft does have the MapPoint Web Service, which refreshes data every six months, but that doesn't help many mobile MapPoint users. Matt Kern, systems engineer at Advizex Technologies in Columbus, Ohio, says his users need a fat client as they are frequently on the road.

Bruette has similar constraints. "We can't use the Web service because you can't drag it with you," he says. "WiFi is wonderful, but it doesn't work running down the interstate or on back roads in a search-and-rescue mission." His emergency workers need dynamic mapping to be truly effective, and that requires a fat client.

Users don't understand why there isn't an auto-update feature for MapPoint's mapping data, especially because the program automatically updates road conditions and delivers standard security patches. "It already has the update feature built into the software," Turner says. "Why not just send us new maps?"

Kern would like to see some kind of fee-based subscription model where users can select the data they want to update. Microsoft is moving toward subscription models with other product lines, so he's surprised they haven't applied it to MapPoint.

Zooming In
What MapPoint lacks in updates, it makes up for in map quality and stellar zoom features. MaidPro's Turner uses it every day to plot routes for his cleaning teams. "Our dispatching software is connected to MapPoint," he explains. "So a team's schedule is sent over to MapPoint, MapPoint routes it, and then we print a map and it's given to each team every day, providing directions to each house to clean. It works great."

MapPoint users say it's the best option for business use.

When Turner can't find a house on an out-of-date MapPoint map, he'll use MapQuest or Rand McNally. The maps in those products may be more up-to-date, but they're not as graphically crisp.

MapPoint also gives him superior zooming and navigation features. "If you want to move in MapPoint, all you do is slide your cursor whichever way you want to go," he says. "You start pushing the map and it moves. The others are a little more cumbersome because they use barometer bars. MapPoint is much easier."

Advizex's Kern agrees and says MapQuest (which he calls "LostQuest") and other competitive offerings are just not up to par. His organization uses MapPoint to track and map sales across areas and territories. "With ‘LostQuest,' the graphics just aren't as crisp," he says. "Once I start drilling down into a particular area and zoom in, I lose a lot of the granularity of the image."

Mapping Extras
Besides zooming and scrolling, MapPoint users can label their maps with pushpin icons. No surprise, the software also integrates nicely with other Microsoft applications like PowerPoint and Excel.

Bruette uses MapPoint in conjunction with GPS-based software to provide emergency personnel with updated maps and images during emergency situations. He can also use it to place icons on the map to indicate a bridge out or delineate the boundaries of a flood area or a fire line. That level of integration and its graphics capabilities improves response and saves time, which is especially important in emergency situations. "When a search-and-rescue team comes back to base camp, we can see where they've been -- and where they missed," he says.

MaidPro's Turner says he likes the fact that he can easily integrate with Excel to scout new opportunities. "If I want to look at a central location and view everything that's within 10 or 15 minutes, it will map it out in a star format," he explains.

Kern says the biggest plus to MapPoint is its ease of use. "A lot of our executives here are not all that computer-savvy," he says. "But I spend zero time supporting this software. I think I've had one or two questions to address the whole time we've used it."

Updates Without the Wait

MapPoint data is notoriously out of date. Microsoft's consumer-oriented Streets & Trips product, however, is not. Savvy MapPoint users have figured out how to get the best of both worlds.

The amateur radio community uses software called APRSpoint, which works with both GPS data and MapPoint, to provide emergency personnel with up-to-the-minute mapping information during emergencies. APRSpoint posted this guide for using the data from Streets & Trips to update MapPoint:

  • First, back up a copy of the MapPoint DATA directory.
  • Procure a copy of Streets & Trips 2006.
  • Do the full install of Streets & Trips that places all the data on the hard disk. (Don't run from the CD.)
  • Under the directory where you installed Streets & Trips, locate the sub-directory "DATA."
  • Copy all the files in this directory to the corresponding "DATA"directory within the directory in which you installed MapPoint. There will be 14 files, totaling about 1GB, to be overwritten with like-named files within MapPoint.
  • Uninstall Streets & Trips to recover the approximately 1GB of disk space it uses.

One caveat is that the automated updates might not work after you put this workaround in place. -- J.C.

Small Hurdles
Although the integration, graphics and ease of use are stellar, there are some downsides to MapPoint 2004 -- besides the lack of updates. MaidPro's Turner would like to see a Spanish language version, because a large portion of his staff is Hispanic. "That would probably save us 20 hours a week," he says. Currently, MapPoint supports English, French, German and Italian (although the Web service supports many more languages, including Spanish).

What MapPoint lacks in updates, it makes up for in map quality and stellar zoom features.

Another downside is the fact that it can't remember route options from one use to the next. "If it finds an address and it thinks it's someplace but it's not exactly accurate, we can move the pushpins so that it's in the right place," Turner says. "The next time we search for that address, though, it won't remember it. It would be nice if we could save that and the next time we go there, it would automatically come up."

Bruette would like to see more accurate and comprehensive demographics, and the ability to change the home map. "The Show and Hide Places option lists police stations, but that listing is spotty at best," he says. "And it does not list fire stations, which is an oversight." MapPoint also has trouble finding addresses on numbered streets, like those in New York.

Despite those shortcomings and the lack of updates for the map data, MapPoint users are happy and say it's the best option for business use. "American business is getting much more service-oriented," Turner says. "Tools like MapPoint then become all the more valuable. MapPoint is true business software, and that's really the biggest difference between it and its competitors."

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