Why can't navigation apps be fun?

With all the holidays, many of us TUAWians spent more time on the road over the past few weeks than we normally do. And when it comes to tech-savvy bloggers, more time on the road means more time with navigation apps. And more time with navigation apps made us ever more aware of our lingering frustrations with the most popular apps.

Sure Navigon and TomTom will get us from here to there, but they represent not just the lower end of design possibility, but the most Windows NT-like user experience. (We say that as an insult. We're Apple bloggers.) We're talking Soviet-era usability.

On a platform that sports such shining examples of beauty and design, including Omni's suite of tools, Apple's brilliant in-house offerings, and so forth, why does utilitarian nonsense dominate the navigation market?

So we huddled around the 8-bit fire in the center of the TUAW backchannel chat room (we're retro like that) and brainstormed about what we wanted to see nav apps evolve to, and what better apps are out there already.

Steve Sande highly recommended the new Waze GPS & Traffic app. Powered by live community-sourced traffic data, it provides turn-by-turn guidance as you drive as well as social integration for carpooling and checking in.

The app passively allows you to contribute traffic and road data, just by leaving it open as you drive. You can also share road reports about accidents and speed traps, although we recommend that you only do so as a passenger or when stopped at traffic lights.

Some of us focused more on data. I personally felt that we needed more features like those currently available in popular running apps. Take Runmeter, which is my sports-tracking app of choice these days. It logs all your stats for walks, runs, bike rides, and more. You can monitor your efficiency, discover how long you were stopped, how far you went, how much you improved. In other words, it provides a full suite of analysis for after you've arrived at your destination.

That's the kind of data I'd want to see integrated into turn-by-turn navigation apps. For each trip, I'd love to know how many miles I went, how efficient my gas usage was, what my high speed was, compare stretches to past runs of the same route, and so forth.

I contacted Abvio, makers of Runmeter, to see whether this was an area they might eventually explore. A company spokesperson politely responded that "Turn by turn isn't something on [our] immediate road map, but [we] do get requests for it on occasion."

And what about weather? Why don't current navigation apps offer real-time weather updates displayed on the route? With some apps, like Navigon, you can get a destination forecast, but as you're driving it's far more important that you know about the weather where you are, or when you're just about to be there. Road Trip Weather, which offers on-route weather updates, was our recent daily iPhone app. It is not, however a navigation app itself.

On a side note, it would also be great if we could automatically pause navigation. Nothing more embarrassing than having your pocket announce that you should turn right in 1.5 miles -- as you're sitting at a table at Burger King.

The final item on our wishlist was more game-like challenges for real-life chores. We'd love to see navigation apps integrate more tightly with GTD apps, schedules, and calendars, but do so in a way that's fun and light. Why not unlock achievements or earn points when stopping by the market, or remembering the dentist appointment? After all, a lot of our day in the modern world centers around travel. Shouldn't navigation apps better integrate with that?

Sure, we'd probably skip @baobab68's suggestion of achievements like "15 Stop Lights Missed" or "Avoided Slow School Bus", or @andyflisher's hint that users should be able to finish the game despite no mirrors, bumpers, or windscreen. But why shouldn't navigation apps be more like games, with charts, records, scores, check-ins, and achievements?

How would you like to see navigation apps evolve? Did we miss your favorite app? Drop a note into the comments and let us know where you see nav apps going in the future.