Opinion: Why Google Maps for iPhone is good for Apple

Even Apple is excited about Google's new app

Despite its aesthetic achievements, Apple's Maps app in iOS 6 left a lot of users unhappy. Turns out that the years Google spent building out its mapping data were hugely important; Apple's data--which powered its new Maps app--didn't have the real world, real user testing that Google Maps benefited from. That's why Apple CEO Tim Cook apologized to customers over his company's Maps app. And that's why customers are now so excited about Google's new, free mapping app for iPhone. And you know who else is excited about Google's new app? Apple.

Why abandon Google?

Apple hasn't commented on the record about exactly why it chose to sever its relationship with Google for the Maps app in iOS 6. The most public explanation the company offered came in Cook's public apology letter, when he wrote "We wanted to provide our customers with even better Maps including features such as turn-by-turn directions, voice integration, Flyover and vector-based maps. In order to do this, we had to create a new version of Maps from the ground up."

The implication there--and the rumor mill's conclusion--is that Google wouldn't allow Apple to offer features like turn-by-turn navigation with voice assist or vector-based map imagery, at least not without substantially hiking licensing fees. Some have also suggested that Google wanted to insert ads into the Maps app, and that Apple wouldn't allow such promotion within a stock app.

Let's say that's why Apple felt forced to roll its own Maps app solution.

Now, Google's released a free Maps app of its own, which of course leverages Google's own mapping data. And Google's app offers features like--you guessed it--vector-based maps, turn-by-turn directions, and voice assistance. Oh, and at least as of this writing, there are no ads to speak of in Google's apps.

In other words, Apple dropped Google from the official Maps app, because Apple wanted its customers to have access to free (and ad-free) turn-by-turn navigation and vector-based maps. And now, Google--like Apple--is offering iPhone customers exactly that feature set.

This is not a big problem for Apple.

What Apple loses if you use Google Maps

If a substantial percentage of iPhone customers turn to Google's free alternative to the built-in iOS Maps app, what does Apple lose? Not much.

Apple already admitted years back that it aggregates anonymized location data from iOS devices. It started doing so long before the release of iOS 6. The point being, even if you use a different app for directions, Apple can still presumably gather useful data about traffic patterns, Wi-Fi hotspot locations, and other valuable location-based data.

And Apple's Maps app is pretty explicitly not monetized. There are no ads. So Apple isn't losing out on lucrative advertising revenue when users turn to Google Maps instead. Since Apple makes its money primarily from the sale of its devices, rather than by ads or selling other content, it's already acquired your cash when you bought your iPhone.

But Apple does lose something with the arrival of Google Maps. Specifically, it sheds the increasingly bad reputation that, rightly or not, its own mapping solution has earned since its release. Beginning and power users alike understand the App Store, and anyone with a compatible iPhone can figure out how to find, install, and use Google's Maps app. That takes a lot of focus off Apple's own Maps app, and gives the company some breathing room to improve its own offering.

What does Apple do next?

Google's long been an active, clever App Store developer. There's no doubt that the search giant will continue to improve and refine Google Maps. Eventual iPad compatibility seems like a sure thing, as well as likely integration with your iOS contacts (so you can quickly navigate to their addresses), and perhaps Google Now-style speech support for requesting directions. Given the way Google has building its own little microcosm inside Apple's apps, it seems probable that you'll be able to request Google Maps directions from Google's Search app and Google Chrome.

But what about Apple? If, in the end, the company got just what it wanted--a robust, full-featured Maps app, albeit provided by Google as a third-party app--you could argue that Apple could quietly let its Maps app follow the Newton, OpenDoc, MobileMe, and Ping into the Great Retired Apple Offering Garden in the heavens, high above the iClouds.

That won't happen. Apple can't and won't allow a core feature as important as maps to be owned and defined by a third-party, no matter how much work and struggle might remain for Cupertino. Though it's exceedingly unlikely, Google could one day pull the plug on its own app. More realistically, Google Maps could get saddled with ads, or mandatory Google Plus integration, or other features that would drive Apple crazy.

Thus, there's only one sane, shrewd path for Apple to take: Welcome the much-needed reprieve offered by Google Maps for iPhone's arrival, and keep on working behind-the-scenes to make its own mapping data ever more competitive.

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Tags iOS 6AppleGPS turn-by-turnInternet-based applications and servicesGoogleconsumer electronicsGPSMapsGPS & navigation software

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