Google has taken its local search service and wrapped it to go. You can now download the new Google Local software to your Java-enhanced...

Share story

Google has taken its local search service and wrapped it to go.

You can now download the new Google Local software to your Java-enhanced cellphone to find nearby restaurants, hotels, automated teller machines or Wi-Fi hotspots.

To try it out, go to

It is unabashedly cool to see Google’s interactive maps and satellite pictures displayed on your cellphone. But once the novelty wears off, Google Local has severe limitations.

Most Read Stories

Unlimited Digital Access. $1 for 4 weeks

For example, proximity is only one factor Google weighs in displaying search results. So when I looked for the nearest sushi spot within my ZIP code, the first five restaurants it recommended were 45 miles from my home.

The same thing happened when I searched for a Wi-Fi hotspot. Google Local recommended coffee houses near a distant college campus and in neighboring communities, but not the Starbucks a mile or so from my home.

The hardware limitations are, well, a moving violation in the making.

Google does not offer spoken turn-by-turn directions and global-positioning-system coordination as car-navigation systems or other, though paid, mobile-phone services have.

Another hitch: Google Local works only on cellphones that run the Java programming language.

Running Google Local on a cellphone presents obvious problems when trying to read a map and driving directions on a the phone’s small display.

Google Local also won’t work on popular wireless handheld devices with more spacious displays, including the BlackBerry or Palm Treo. Nor is it compatible with portable devices, such as the iPod, that can’t connect wirelessly to the Internet.

Of course, Google Local isn’t the only mobile navigation software out there. Garmin Mobile, for example, offers a navigation service for cellphones that incorporates spoken turn-by-turn directions, but it costs $9.99 a month. MapQuest, meanwhile, has MapQuest Find Me, which provides directions and points of interest for Sprint’s GPS phones for a monthly fee.

Google, by contrast, is free. But be warned — some carriers charge for downloading data. Google coyly recommends inquiring about unlimited data plans to avoid “counting bytes like you do minutes.”

Once launched, Google Local presents a menu of options, such as search, directions or satellite images. To find the nearest florist, you type in your address or ZIP code and a key phrase — in this case, flowers — and Google yields a map of up to nine results, all plotted with virtual pushpins on an interactive map.

You use the numbers associated with each search result to get more detailed information: the name, address and phone number of the florist shop. You can immediately call to place an order or get driving directions to or from the shop. You can zoom in to get a better look at nearby street names, or pull up the satellite or aerial photo.

Alternatively, you can fetch driving directions using Google’s SMS short code 46645 (GOOGL). You can enter an abbreviated search query to get turn-by-turn directions as a text message.

Following the driving directions was an exercise in squint and dodge, as in squinting at the screen, while dodging obstacles on the road.

I’m as dexterous as the next commuter. But Google Local tested my multitasking abilities.

This limitation makes Google Local for phones best suited for pedestrians. Everybody else should use it the old-fashioned way: by going to Google online and printing out directions. And keeping their eyes on the road.