We all tend to take maps for granted. In the 17th/18th centuries and even beyond, there were decent sized areas of the world which were just being explored and mapped for the first time. Now, the ease of access to cartographical data means we don't much give them a second thought.
I bought a couple of Ordnance Survey Explorer maps the other day, and was quite surprised at how expensive they are - £7.99 each - and started wondering if they were worth the money, when I could just go ahead and get data online for free. There's something unique about poring over a real map, though: not necessarily looking for anything, just finding out what's there. A neighbour came round at one point when I was looking through my new maps, and said that (like I did), he used to sit in the car as a passenger and study the maps around the places they were driving through. He even used to take the Atlas of the World to bed and just look at it, which I figured was a bit weird and best not discussed any further.
Thinking about how accessible mapping information has become brings a few interesting points up, though: Ordnance Survey maps are actually pretty good value given that they must cost a fair bit to print and distribute, and if you're out on a walk or cycle in the middle of the country, knowing that you could get a decent aerial view from Google Earth or Windows Live Local might not be of any use, whereas a good map in your pocket makes all the difference.
Meanwhile, I've become a big fan of Windows Live Mobile, especially after bonding my CoPilot bluetooth GPS receiver with the Smartphone (tip: it's a BTGPS3 unit, and the passkey is unfathomly set to 0183 by default).
I've also used CoPilot for Smartphone as an in-car GPS/navigation aid, and it works really well (even if you don't have a place to mount the phone properly, it can bark instructions from the passenger seat, just like a real navigator or navigatrix would). There are also lots of other fun apps (like Jason's favourite, SportsDo) which can use GPS to record where your device has been - for later analysis on your PC. Or here, a developer at MS has built a real-time GPS locator which sends his coordinates back to a web service on his PC, so his family can see where he is all the time. Spooky, maybe...
Autoroute vs online maps
I remember when the application Autoroute first came out, in the early 1990s: it was an old DOS application which shipped on floppy disks, and cost hundreds of pounds at the time. The target audience was fleet delivery managers and the likes, who would generate route plans for the drivers rather than have the trucks wandering their own route and taking longer/using more fuel than might be optimal. So even though Autoroute cost a lot of money, it could save a lot of money and was considered funds well spent.
Microsoft bought the company who made Autoroute, and released the by-now-Windows-application for a much more reasonable price. Autroute 2007 retails today for about £50, and with a USB GPS receiver, £85.
It's quite interesting now that Autoroute 2007 has direct integration with Windows Live Local - so you can find somewhere on Autoroute, then search the web for information about local businesses, or view the aerial/hybrid views from that point. It's obvious to think that future evolutions of Windows Live Local might offer more of the route planning stuff that Autoroute is so good at, though UI-wise it could be more of a challenge...
Currently, Windows Live Local doesn't offer the ability to do more than a simple "drive from here/to here" route - there's no waypoints, no "avoid this area" type functionality. Google Maps does offer some of these things but it's not quite as slick as Autoroute for now.
Rather than loading up Autoroute, though, it's often quicker to go straight to the likes of Windows Live Local and zoom to a place you're looking at (maybe you're thinking of buying a house, for example - the single most useful aspect of this technology if my experience of house hunting last year is at all typical), so the usage patterns of all these types of applications is changing as the technology gets better.
One cool and current use of mapping technology is Bikely.com, which uses Google Maps to do routes that a user can draw or import from GPS devices, then share with others. Still has a long way to go functionality-wise when it comes to smart route planning, but it's easy to use to do the basics, and is a good portent of things to come.