It’s no secret that Chinese officials have been at war with Google. Gmail access is sporadic, Google image search crippled, Google docs never works, and Google+ was banned upon release. For all these services though, there are reasonable substitutes, except for Google maps. But with the recent release of truly outstanding satellite mapping, Baidu provides not only an alternative but a superior suite of map products, especially if you are competent in Chinese.

Online maps are the new frontier in the ’net wars. Huang Wei, Baidu maps project manager, contrasts online maps to the rest of the internet: “It’s looking for stuff in the real world, not in people’s heads.” With its launch of satellite view maps for China, Baidu is clearly planting a big stake in the ground—real or not—and boasts a full arsenal of map view functions: satellite, street and 3-D.

Converting expats to Baidu’s street maps will prove something of challenge, but only because of the language barrier. Baidu doesn’t have a whit of English on them, not even pinyin; so if you don’t recognize characters, you’re at a disadvantage. But if you can work through that, though, you’ve got your holy grail. Not only does it load WAY faster than Google, it also has some very nice little touches like accurately numbered subway exits. Google, meanwhile, just has useless little blobs of color.

Another killer feature is Baidu’s traffic view. Click it and you get a real-time view of traffic jams. Red means avoid, green means all clear. It’s a truly amazing accomplishment, mainly because it actually works. The technology behind it is ingenious: GPS-enabled tracking devices are placed in cabs which then crawl the city day and night. The device tracks the velocity of the cab and updates the main server of delays in real time.

Baidu’s satellite view maps are an easier sell. Comparison shop for a minute and you’ll agree that Baidu’s are just plain clearer and more accurate. That’s not a big surprise, though, considering that most of Google’s map images were obtained years ago while Baidu’s date back to 2010/11. The main drawback is that Baidu’s satellite view only works for China. Hey, a little home-field advantage never hurts.

Then there’s the 3-D wow factor. Baidu has this amazing 3-D view where it gives you a truly stunning, Sim City-style city views. You haven’t seen the Bund until you’ve seen it painstakingly reconstructed in full CGI glory. Spin around the city like you’re in the cockpit of a helicopter. The construction sites below even have little cranes and bulldozers! Currently they only carry 3-D maps for Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou, and even for those cities, coverage stops well before the city does. But Director of International Communications Kaiser Kuo tells us to expect upwards of 20-30 more cities very soon.

As a location-based service, Baidu’s maps still have a ways to go. Click on the shiyenei option, and you won’t find too much tempting stuff just yet, most likely due to lack of any meaningful partnership with powerhouse listings database like Dianping.com or City Weekend. And, unbelievably, Baidu Maps has yet to launch an iPad app (there is an iPhone app). And when you’re talking about dominating space, you have to be mobile. Regardless, Baidu’s maps are an excellent resource for expats on the go.


Cool Map Apps


Walk Jog Run: This is the top of the line app/website for the runners. The backend is based on Google maps. Tweak your routes and share with friends.


Bikemap: Aside from plotting and sharing favorite routes, this app displays elevation changes in a super user-friendly format.


Bing Maps: Install Microsoft Silverlight, and get access to a ton of apps. Most are completely useless, but it does integrate with Facebook Connect.


Compass: This free app does exactly what it says: it puts a functioning compass on your screen. Never get lost in the woods again! Just don’t forget your power cable.


History: Maps of the World: This cool, educational app loads up interactive maps of the world from various historical moments.


Moon Globe: Take a break from earth and all its problems with this cool set of maps of the moon.