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Map Apps: The Race to Fill in the Blanks

Google, Skyhook Wireless, and startups are mapping airports, malls, and other indoor spaces

Visitors to the sprawling Powell’s Books in Portland, Ore., often grab one of the fold-up maps available at the entrances to the four-story, city-block-size store. Without one, locating a particular genre can be “daunting,” says Darin Sennett, the store’s director of strategic projects. Since April, tech-savvy customers can download a smartphone app instead. Type in the title you’re looking for and check a box to indicate your starting point, and the app displays the quickest route along with turn-by-turn directions. Thanks to the app, “people aren’t using their phones to check Amazon to see if there’s a better deal,” says Sennett. “They’re using them to look at more of our books.”

Just as MapQuest kicked off a rush to provide street-by-street navigation for Web surfers a decade ago, the race is now on to map the Great Indoors. Startups such as Aisle411, Micello, and Meridian, which worked on the Powell’s app, are creating detailed digital portraits of shopping malls, airports, arenas, and other places that were once big blank spots. On Nov. 29, Google introduced maps for more than 20 airports, hundreds of Home Depots, and every Ikea store in the U.S., all of which are now available on the search giant’s Android operating system for smartphones. “This market is getting real,” says Jeff Lewis, co-founder of one-year-old Guidebook, which has created maps for about 900 museums, industry conferences, and other clients.