Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Is Google Maps becoming the new iTunes for Android?

I remember the 80s when MTV played music videos. I also remember 2001 and Mac OS 10.1 when iTunes did nothing but play music, which it did very well.

Today, I am thinking about the Google Maps app. It is using larger and larger chunks out of my (admittedly low and self-imposed) 250 MB monthly quota but doesn't work as well as it previously did for it's most basic function: getting (and keeping) a GPS lock to display my current location on a map. I can fiddle my way around the GPS shutting off issue, which at worst, requires a reboot. The data usage issue, however, is a real problem, so much so that I am now starting maps in airplane mode, which allows me to view my current location based solely on the data cached on my phone.

If I don't do this, my current bmobile charge would be finished in less than two months, while the previous charge lasted the full four. To be honest, I can't say 100% for sure that google maps is using more data because I only previously monitored my total daily usage, rather than individual app usage. But I can honestly say that I am doing nothing differently that I am aware of, aside from using Google+. (I've always used latitude.)

I first noticed the issue after upgrading to 5.9.0 on 8/17 and enabling the new labs feature for precaching area maps, which I used to download all of the kanto region (over wifi of course). The option to Prefetch on mobile is disabled. I have a 93 MB data cache, the specifics of which are an absolute mystery. Which areas are cached? Does the cache expire? How often does it update? Does it have a maximum size that causes overwrites when visiting new areas?

Here is my 3G data usage for 8/22 from the Phone Usage app. This is after returning from Obon Holiday. I was on wifi all day except for the morning commute and a lunch break. I walked outside in the evening and used the Google Map app for about 30 seconds to view an area that is cached on my phone. (I know this because I can view it in detail while in airplane mode) That is all. I put the phone back in airplane mode and opened the Phone Usage app to see that I had just used over 2 MB.

What's the 1 MB upload from Google Maps? All the location data from my travels? I actually don't mind sharing my GPS coordinates and nearby wifi MAC addresses because it improves the database. If I had the option to opt out of sharing, I wouldn't. I would, however, prefer to not donate my precious mobile bandwidth. I am also not sure why a large chunk of this data is marked as a download.

Was more information recently packed into the backend database? Did one of the several summer updates enable access to backend information that wasn't previously accessible? Did integrations on the social side (buzz, latitude, google+) increase the amount of data pushed to my phone with each start of the maps app? Did my phone re-download and cache tiles that had been overwritten?

Here's usage from the morning of 8/24. I left the house on airplane mode, which I turned off when I got off the train to check in at the station and share with "friends on latitude" which hooks into Google+. Again, this area is cached. I then put the phone back in airplane mode and checked. 1 MB. I only opened google maps.

If I had the slightest clue why google maps recently started using what appears to be three times as much data as it previously did, then I'd have an idea of what to do differently. But while Android is open source, the core Gapps that constitute the "Google Experience" are anything but. In fact, I don't think there are even publicly available release notes.

Either way, I am at best using about 3 times more data each day than I had previously. At worst, I am using the same as I had with skype over 3G (the last few days of my last charge). Zoom in on 8/17 and onward. The drastic change in slope is when I started using airplane mode.

In related news, JCI now offers a 1 GB/month plan for ¥3100. Guess while I'll be getting?


  1. I thought Japan had decent mobile plans? I would never get a mobile plan that didn't have unlimited data. I just don't want to be bothered about measuring data traffic when I use my mobile devices.

  2. We do have unlimited plans. But based on the current exchange rate, it will cost you about $80US a month on the best carrier (Docomo). Want to use your own unlocked phone with Docomo, it will cost you about $130US per month. And these prices are just for data.

  3. I have to say that I don't really consider that to be a "decent" plan. And changing extra for unlocked phones. Is that because Japan doesn't use normal GSM phones?

  4. Nope not all all. Any WCDMA phone that supports 2100 MHz will work. They charge that simply because they can. The official reason is because an unlocked phone might be able to tether, they charge the tethering rate. The standard is about ¥5,500 to ¥6,000 for unlimited data. Add to that ¥4,200 for unlimited tethering.

  5. Wow. They don't even do that in the US, which has the worst mobile companies (at least I believed that until now). Unlimited really does mean unlimited though, right? From what I've heard about the US, "unlimited" there seems to mean "2 GB/month".

  6. Yeah, it is really unlimited. They will of course throttle you but it has to be a huge amount of usage. The Docomo CEO says about 95% of 3G users are under 5 GB. They have a 3 million packet in 3 day rule, though, which is about 120 MB per day, so over 30 days, that would be 3,600 MB, so I guess if you are in the 4 GB of usage per month range, you might have some of your traffic, uh, what's the term... "shaped" ;-)

  7. But that's not really unlimited then, is it? I think I've hit over 30 GB in a month.

  8. Traffic shaping - throttling during peak times as opposed to shutting you down. So it is not fully unrestricted but it is pretty much unlimited. Different carrier but with same rules, but check out this screen cap

    I think that is charged at ¥0.026/packet, so it is about 60 GB of usage. The full price on that bill before discounts is enough to buy property.

  9. Welcome to Japan. It's an island in many respects!
    Carriers are ripping off and people don't even recognize as they do not know the situation in other countries. The major carriers (Docomo, Softbank, KKDI au) have similar pricing and lock in customers in any way they can.
    You'd better don't get me started on this topic...