Offline driving directions

Utah 008

Not every new feature deserves a blog post, but this one felt like it did.

Offline maps seem like a great idea in theory, but they don’t always result in a reliable experience. This is true even on Windows, which has a pretty solid offline maps engine. On Android, with Google Maps… well, best of luck getting that to work reliably. And even if you have the actual maps, we’ve noticed that getting driving directions while offline isn’t always that reliable, especially when crossing state boundaries or navigating certain backroads.

Well, the good news is that when you’re working on the world’s best travel companion app ™, you can actually make a difference. Starting with Backroads version 1.0.6, the app no longer asks for driving directions every time for every drive in your trip. Instead, it asks once during planning, when you’re online, and saves the directions as a GPX file leveraging the app’s existing track / attachment support. That means that every automatic drive we generate gets a track file, which includes turn-by-turn maneuvers as waypoints. This file is available offline, and will render your route in a navigable fashion on the tracking page, even if you have no offline maps at all and have no idea where you are.

As a bonus feature, the app will even read the directions to you when you tap the waypoint. It’s not turn-by-turn navigation read by Cate Blanchett, but hey, it’s not bad.

There and back again

Utah 1320-HDR

The ancients left us dusty mainframes, incomprehensible reels of tape, and strange disks that were often floppy, sometimes hard, occasionally compact. They also left us some good advice: when shipping software, always eat your own dogfood.

We did that last week in Utah. On the whole, it was an unqualified success.

Imagine, if you will, a Word document full of bullets and GPS coordinates, scheduling a week of ungraded roads and undiscovered sandstone wonders. Alongside the document are GPX tracks, hastily snapped Google Maps screenshots, topo map images drawing lines in the sand, files upon files upon subdirectories of pure chaos.

What will the weather be like? Check five different locations every morning, if we’re lucky enough to have a signal out here. Will we have time to see everything on the list? We never do, but we’ll play it by ear because who knows? Where should we eat tonight? Maybe Yelp will tell us, assuming USA ComNet 4G will lend us some bits… And where is 452 100W 300S anyway? How did those pioneers ever find a restaurant?

That was then.

This time we did it by the book, or should I say, by the app. We lived the dream, ate our own dogfood, learned to stop worrying and trust Backroads. And it was great.

The worst bug we found related to altitude. Turns out when you mix and match GPS points containing altitude with others that don’t, Microsoft’s MapControl revolts and plays the dance of the sugarplum map icons when you resize the map. Suboptimal. A quick fix that night and the world became flat again.

We missed being able to automatically sync trips between devices. We missed seeing our track through the desert as we walked. Those features will come.

We didn’t miss feeling lost, or being afraid to explore. We didn’t miss copying and pasting coordinates from Word on a mobile phone. We didn’t miss worrying about needing online data in an offline world.

At the same time, we learned a lot. We brought back a long list of to-dos, little bugs to fix and small features to make the trip companion experience more smooth. Some of those have already shipped in this week’s app updates.

Bottom line: after this trip, we feel even more confident in our decision to ship to the public last month. We used it. It’s ready.

Hello, World

After a few months in development, this week we finally made the first version of the Backroads app available to the public. You can now install it from the Windows store, for both desktop and mobile Windows 10.

Our criteria for this release was fairly simple: if it’s good enough for us to use in our own trip planning, then others will probably find it useful as well.

While this is an important milestone for us, it’s really just the beginning. There’s a number of really cool features we’re thinking about adding, including support for the more commonly-used mobile platforms. As they say, software is never done.

We’ll be in hiking in Utah next week, putting the app further to the test.