DENVER - Initially, the great thing about Internet mapping programs was their swiftness and ease for obtaining directions, printing them and driving the course you plotted.
Now those Web maps can travel with you, too. And get updated on the road. And, on some wireless handhelds, show you exactly where you are and if, say, an Ethiopian restaurant is anywhere near.
MapQuest Inc., acquired by America Online Inc. in 2000, was the first mover and remains tops in Internet cartography as it heads toward the 10th anniversary of its Web site in February.
"As Google is to search, MapQuest has been to mapping and driving directions," said Greg Sterling of The Kelsey Group, which researches electronic directories and local media.
But a bevy of deep-pocketed competitors threatens.
"Google, Yahoo and MSN are certainly on (its) heels," Sterling said. "MapQuest is in danger if (it doesn't) continue to innovate."
Of all people going to mapping sites, 71 percent visited MapQuest.com in September, roughly even from a year ago, according to comScore Media Metrix. Yahoo Inc. drew 32 percent, also about the same as last year, while new arrival Google Inc. had a 25 percent share. (The numbers do not add up to 100 percent because some people visit multiple sites.)
"We're the market leader for a reason," said Tommy McGloin, MapQuest's general manager. "We're paying really close attention to what people want."
Yet with Internet and wireless technologies altering the competitive landscape at warp speed, a marriage of mapping and online search is convulsing the field even as it spurs exciting new applications.
Online mapping is red hot.
While the number of U.S. Internet users has grown 7 percent in the last year, the number going to mapping sites leaped 33 percent to 51.3 million, according to comScore.
After Hurricane Katrina, Houston Astrodome officials turned to MapQuest to help survivors find their way around town. MapQuest also offered an application for pet rescuers using dogdetective.com to map locations of stranded animals, and it worked with floodsource.com to help people see whether their homes were in flood zones.
But when Jonathan Mendez, a 24-year-old software engineer, wanted to help people affected by Hurricane Katrina, he used maps and satellite photos from Google. He and a friend created scipionus.com, where people could tag Google maps with messages on how friends and neighborhoods were doing after the storm. (MapQuest does not make publicly available, as Google does, the software hooks that allow such projects).
Meanwhile, MSN Virtual Earth from Microsoft Corp. was teaming with MSNBC to offer maps with before-and-after aerial images of the Gulf Coast clear enough to make out front porches and power lines.
MapQuest had once offered satellite images, but scrapped them after executives deemed them fun but not that useful.
That decision was challenged by the satellite-eye view products introduced this year in Virtual Earth and Google Earth.
MapQuest also had no equivalent of the service launched by Amazon.com Inc. subsidiary A9.com to offer street-level photos in two dozen U.S. cities. A9's photos of Times Square show MTV's studios and the Toys R Us across the street as if you were riding past in a cab.
Nor was MapQuest matching Google Maps' offering of maps with overhead photos showing, for example the gold dome atop Colorado's state capitol building in Denver.
Stephen Lawler, general manager of Microsoft's MapPoint unit, says users want to be able to ask a search engine not only to find places for them but also to provide a rich visual environment to explore on their own.
Mapquest claims it gives the best directions because of its experience: knowing how to present information that is useful, without confusing users by giving them too much.
But its tools and features have changed little in appearance over the years.
Google Maps, by contrast, offers technology - even on mobile devices - that lets consumers more easily move maps in any direction by using familiar drag-and-drop techniques. And Yahoo is testing similar features while adding more types of data, such as live traffic conditions and subway locations.
Google also is adding maps to its shopping site, Froogle. A new feature maps out merchants selling a particular item in a given area and lists price differences.
MapQuest does boast the GPS-enabled "Find Me" service, available for $3.99 to $5.99 a month on some Sprint-Nextel phones and BlackBerry devices - functionality that Google has yet to offer. The service lets users pinpoint their location and use their phones to map what's nearby. They can share their locations with friends with a text message - and even post turn-by-turn directions to a private Web page.
The company also plans to revive its satellite images by the end of the year, and it's already letting consumers find local businesses based on their location.
Its "Find It" feature lets users type in a business by name - say, the Double Door nightclub in Chicago - and get a map, phone number and address. And a new $699 navigation device for cars blurts out MapQuest's turn-by-turn directions to drivers.
MapQuest's roots date to 1967, when it was the cartographic division of the publisher R.R. Donnelley & Sons Co. before becoming an independent company. In pre-Internet days, the group made the road maps that were distributed free at gas stations as well as the computerized TripTik system for AAA.
MapQuest.com went live Feb. 5, 1996, and started trading shares publicly three years later. McGloin, former chief of AOL's Moviefone, took over as general manager two years later after MapQuest became a property of AOL's parent, Time Warner Inc.
McGloin is betting on a boom in wireless map services, though analysts say mass adoption of maps on portable devices is likely years away. He says, without offering specifics, that growth in MapQuest's paid mobile map services has more than doubled this year.
"You never know when you catch a current within the mobile business," he said.