Nation roundup for December 14


Holiday travel is especially busy

NEW YORK (AP) — This Christmas travel season could be the busiest in six years, with AAA predicting that 93.3 million Americans will hit the road. That’s 1.6 percent more than last year and just 400,000 people shy of the 2006 record.

More cars will crowd the highways than ever before, largely because finding a seat on a plane at a desirable price has gotten more difficult. AAA says a record 84.4 million people will drive at least 50 miles between Dec. 22 and Jan. 1. That’s 90.5 percent of holiday travelers, up from 89.3 percent six years ago.

Put another way: one in four Americans will be driving long distances for Christmas and New Year’s. So expect plenty of traffic jams, crowded highway rest stops and overflowing toll plazas.

The price of gas could be close to the average of $3.23 a gallon that drivers paid last Christmas Day.

Benghazi probe slowed by Libya

WASHINGTON (AP) — U.S. counterterrorism officials told lawmakers Thursday that uncooperative or less-than-capable local law enforcement in Libya, Egypt and Tunisia is slowing the search for suspects in the death of the U.S. ambassador and three other Americans in Libya on Sept. 11.

Authorities in the region have not yet arrested many of the suspects the U.S. wants to question about the violent attack on the American compound in Benghazi on Sept. 11, according to two U.S. officials briefed on a private House Intelligence Committee hearing Thursday, where counterterrorism, intelligence and law enforcement chiefs disclosed the information to lawmakers.

The U.S. officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said Egypt has arrested Egyptian Islamic Jihad member Muhammad Jamal Abu Ahmad for possible links to the attack, but key al-Qaida sympathizers remain free.

Rice will not seek secretary of state

WASHINGTON (AP) — Susan Rice, the embattled U.N. ambassador, abruptly withdrew from consideration to be the next secretary of state on Thursday after an ugly standoff with Republican senators who declared they would vigorously oppose her nomination.

The move elevates Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry as the likely choice to be the nation’s next top diplomat when Hillary Rodham Clinton departs soon. President Barack Obama accepted Rice’s decision with a shot at Republicans.

“While I deeply regret the unfair and misleading attacks on Susan Rice in recent weeks, her decision demonstrates the strength of her character,” he said.

Rice had become the public face of the tangled administration description of what happened in Benghazi, Libya, on Sept. 11 of this year when four Americans, including the U.S. ambassador to Libya, were killed in what is now known to have been a terrorist attack.

Rice withdrew her name in a letter to the president, saying she was convinced the confirmation process would be “lengthy, disruptive and costly — to you and to our most pressing national and international priorities.”

“That trade-off is simply not worth it to our country,” Rice said.

Google Maps return to iPhone with new mobile app

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — Google Maps has found its way back to the iPhone.

The world’s most popular online mapping system returned late Wednesday with the release of the Google Maps iPhone app. The release comes nearly three months after Apple Inc. replaced Google Maps as the device’s built-in navigation system and inserted its own map software into the latest version of its mobile operating system.

Apple’s maps application proved to be far inferior to Google’s, turning what was supposed to be a setback for Google into a vindication.

The product’s shoddiness prompted Apple CEO Tim Cook to issue a rare public apology and recommend that iPhone owners consider using Google maps through a mobile Web browser or seek other alternatives until his company could fix the problems. Cook also replaced Scott Forstall, the executive in charge of Apple’s mobile operating system, after the company’s maps app became the subject of widespread ridicule.

Among other things, Apple’s maps misplaced landmarks, overlooked towns and sometimes got people horribly lost. In one example brought to light this week, Australian police derided Apple’s maps as “life-threatening” because the system steered people looking for the city of Mildura into a sweltering, remote desert 44 miles from their desired destination.

Google Inc., in contrast, is hailing its new iPhone app as a major improvement from the one evicted by Apple.

“We started from scratch,” said Daniel Graf, mobile director of Google Maps. Google engineers started working on the new app before Apple’s Sept. 19 ouster, Graf said, though he declined to be more specific.

Digital maps are key battleground in mobile computing because they get used frequently on smartphones and can pinpoint a user’s whereabouts. That information is so prized by advertisers that they’re willing to pay much higher rates for marketing messages aimed at a prospective customer in a particular location, said Greg Sterling, an analyst at Opus Research.

Google’s mapping app for the iPhone doesn’t include ads, but that will likely change, based on the steady stream of marketing flowing through the Google maps app on Android phones.

The additional tools in the free iPhone app include turn-by-turn directions. Google’s previous refusal to include that popular feature on the iPhone app —while making it available for smartphones running on its own Android software— is believed to be one of the reasons Apple decided to develop its own technology. The increasing friction between Google and Apple as they jostle for leadership in the smartphone market also played a role in the mapping switch.

Google’s new iPhone mapping app also offers street-level photography of local neighborhoods, as well as three-dimensional views, public transit directions and listings for more than 80 million businesses around the world. The app still lacks some of the mapping features available on Android-powered phones, such as directions inside malls and other buildings.

All those improvements are positives for Apple too, Sterling said, because the availability of a more comprehensive mapping option makes it less likely that iPhone owners will switch to Android devices.

“The irony is that Apple ended up getting a better version of Google Maps on its system by booting it off,” Sterling said. “At the same time, you could argue that Google is making a triumphant return to cheering crowds. So, in a way, everyone wins in this situation.”

Investors didn’t see anything positive for Apple. The company’s stock slid $9.31 to close at $529.84, while Google shares crept up $5.14 to finish at $702.70.

There still isn’t a Google mapping app for Apple’s top-selling tablet computer, the iPad, but the company plans to make one eventually. Google, which is based in Mountain View, Calif., declined to say when it hopes to release an iPad mapping app. For now, iPad owners can use the maps in an iPhone mode. That won’t be the best experience, but it still may be better than Apple’s offering on the iPad.

In an indication of iPhone owners’ exasperation with Apple’s maps, Google’s new alternative was already the top-ranking free app in Apple’s iTunes store early Thursday morning. By noon EDT, users had chimed in with more than 10,000 reviews of the Google app. Nearly 90 percent of them gave Google maps a five-star rating — the highest possible grade.

The return of Google’s map app may even encourage more iPhone owners to upgrade to Apple’s latest mobile software, iOS 6. Some people resisted the new version because they didn’t want to lose access to the old Google mapping application built into iOS 5 and earlier versions.

Despite the app’s quickly rising popularity, Google’s solution still wasn’t listed among the 18 recommended mapping apps in iTunes as of early Thursday afternoon.

Apple, which is based in Cupertino, Calif., declined to comment about Google’s map app.

Graf said Google isn’t hoping to make Apple look bad with its new mapping app. “On maps, we have a friendly relationship,” he said.

 

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