You're on vacation and you're lost. You must have missed a turn, and now you're driving in a seedy part of an unfamiliar town. Instead of panicking, you find your way by consulting a map on the screen of a laptop resting next to you on the seat. A small icon on the map traces the route of the car as it moves.
The next phase in computerized mapping software is about to arrive. Portable PC owners who insert a credit-card-size device from Rockwell International or Trimble Navigation will be able to receive tracking information from the Global Positioning System, a constellation of satellites orbiting the planet. By coupling the device with the latest version of Road Scholar Software's City Streets For Windows, you can turn the computer into an in-vehicle navigation system that lets you follow your actual movement on the map.
The military and boaters have long relied on global positioning technology. But until recently, the receivers have been too costly for most consumers. Together, City Streets and the add-on card will run about $499. And soon, Automap will unveil Automap Streets for $50 on two CD-ROMs, with detailed maps that will work with receivers from Socket Communications. The disks will come with downtown maps of New York, Chicago, and other cities, plus another area of your choice. Additional maps cost $30. Problem is, not many people have laptops with CD-ROMs.
ZIP-CODE AID. While digital maps and affordable global positioning technology offer gee-whiz capabilities, the programs also have more down-to-earth uses. City Streets and Taxi, from News Electronic Data, can print out the local streets you need to follow from your hotel to a business meeting. Automap Road Atlas is a long-distance planner that can help you concoct a cross-country vacation route. They also have advantages over paper maps. By typing in the name of a town, the result will be highlighted; no need to strain your eyes searching through the D3 or E4 sections as you try to unfold the darn thing.
The high-tech maps can provide multiple levels of scale. DeLorme Mapping's Street Atlas USA CD-ROM lets you zoom in and out of 13 levels of magnitude, from 500 miles down to street-level detail. You can also punch in a zip code; the program identified 36778 as Snow Hill, Ala. By clicking on a "locate" button, you could call up a map of the area. DeLorme claims the CD-ROM includes every U.S. street. City Streets comes with one city of your choice, plus demo maps of San Francisco, Manhattan, and Washington.
Some programs also provide data not included in the maps you might get at a gas station. Taxi includes the Zagat restaurant and hotel guides for New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, and elsewhere. The software will search for a restaurant by cuisine, price, or decor.
LABORIOUS. Many programs let you annotate maps to mark where customers, suppliers, or family members live. Automap Pro, the upscale sibling to the company's $80 Road Atlas route planner, is geared for travel managers. Like the cheaper version, it includes maps that cover more than 410,000 miles of highways and state and county roads. But Automap Pro lets managers overlay their own databases. For instance, a customer service representative might display coordinates for all stores in a region. The rep can click on each point to bring up the name, address, phone number, and even a picture of the outlet. Sales types who need to make multiple stops can consult the program to plan an itinerary. Users can specify an arrival or departure time for a city, or indicate when they plan to stay overnight.
All the map programs put to a quick test by BUSINESS WEEK seemed to provide accurate directions. But there were some limitations. Turnpike road warriors found Automap's preferred route from New York to Washington unusually complicated and not the most direct. And mapping out Big Apple directions with Adept's Street Wizard proved needlessly laborious; too many mouse clicks were required to concoct a simple route. It just goes to show you that while computerized maps can be helpful, it also pays to consult someone who already knows the way.
TABLE: MAPPING OUT TRAVEL SOFTWARE AUTOMAP PRO Lets you plan cross-country routes $399 AUTOMAP and create geographic databases CITY STREETS FOR WINDOWS Can track your movement with $100 ROAD SCHOLAR SOFTWARE Global Positioning System add-on STREET ATLAS USA Company claims CD-ROM includes $169 DELORME MAPPING every street in the country STREET WIZARD Comes with map of one county; $99 ADEPT COMPUTER SOLUTIONS additional counties cost $50 TAXI Combines city maps with the Zagat $70 NEWS ELECTRONIC DATA restaurant and hotel surveys DATA: BUSINESS WEEK