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Google Maps 4.4 for the Android platform is the latest in a series of improvements in Google's mapping software. It makes one big change over previous versions, though I hesitate to call it a new feature.
What Google has done is take the "Places" function of Google Maps, and made it is own application of sorts. As Google explains, it wants to speed up search for things that are nearby. Its Places tool within Google Maps has always been a way for users to seek out what's in the vicinity. Now, that function stands apart as its own app.
Once updated to Maps 4.4, Android users will note that Google has added Places into the main menu. Press the Places button and it opens a new search tool. The search tool has a standard search bar up at the top, which Google says can be filled with typed or spoken queries. The app also has a bunch of default search categories, such as Restaurants, Coffee, Bars, Hotels, Attractions, ATMs, and Gas Stations.
The app uses GPS, so it is location aware. Users will not need to enter location information when using Places, as it already knows where they are. Press any of the categories for a quick search of that topic. In my tests, Places was consistently able to find the nearest businesses matching my query, and ranked them in distance-order (closest first).
Users can also add their own custom search category. For example, I added a category search for "Music." Places automatically added it to the list of categories in the application. When used for searching, it pulled up the local music guitar shop, some local recording studios, several record stores, and even some nearby venues that host live music performances. It worked perfectly.
The Places icon can be dragged from the main menu and placed as a shortcut on the home screen. Google says that Maps 4.4 is available to all handsets running Android 1.6 and up.
Google also said that it will be added a similar feature to Maps for BlackBerry users in the near future. It didn't say anything about the iPhone or other platforms.