Google Maps' return to iOS may not be permanent, says analyst

Apple couldn't reject Google Maps now, but it could down the line

Google Maps' return to the iPhone and iPad this week may not be permanent, an analyst said today.

"It would have been out of the question," said Ezra Gottheil, an analyst with Technology Business Research, referring to a rejection of Google's submission of Maps to the iOS App Store. Not only would that have been a public relations disaster, it would have flown in the face of Apple CEO Tim Cook's suggestion last September that dissatisfied customers use alternatives, including Google's Maps, which could be accessed through iOS' Safari browser.

"But down the line, if Apple feels they have a compelling reason, if they believe they then had a superior app, they may choose not to accept Google Maps in some future manifestation," Gottheil said. Apple has rejected apps before by citing duplication of effort with its own pre-installed apps.

"For now, Apple doesn't want to force their users to use their Map app," Gottheil continued. "But I can see that happening when a lot of money is at stake."

Google released its iOS Maps app late Wednesday, returning to the iPhone and iPad after a three-month forced absence. Apple dumped Google Maps with the release of iOS 6, which debuted Sept. 19 as an upgrade to older devices, and powers the new iPhone 5, iPad Mini and fourth-generation iPad.

Almost immediately, users began complaining that Apple's new Maps app was feeble at best, dangerous at worst. They cited the lack of public transit maps, inaccurate maps, off-kilter points-of-interest, missing streets and addresses, and more.

Some experts ranked the misstep as equal to or even greater than "Antennagate," the 2010 public relations fiasco when iPhone 4 owners reported that signal strength plummeted and calls were interrupted if they touched the newly-redesigned smartphone in certain ways.

Days later, Apple CEO Tim Cook responded with an apology, saying his company was "extremely sorry for the frustration" its Maps app had caused customers.

With that history, it was no surprise that Apple allowed its once-partner-now-cutthroat-rival to place a Maps app in the iOS App Store, said Gottheil. "Apple never wanted to keep Google Maps off the iPhone," he said. "It was to make Google Maps a non-standard app."

Gottheil has a point: While Google Maps immediately jumped to the No. 1 spot on the App Store's list of the bestselling free apps -- and as of Friday, remained there -- not every iPhone or iPad owner will download Google's app. Conversely, every iOS user has Apple's Maps app.

Nor was Apple's work on mapping for naught, Gottheil argued. "Apple's main purpose was to protect themselves from a possible decision by Google to withhold Maps in the future," he said. "It was a defensive move, a pre-emptive one, to make sure that [the iPhone's] future was assured."

Many mobile analysts see mapping as a smartphone cornerstone, something no device can do without.

Gottheil knocked Apple not for building its own mapping technology, but for releasing it prematurely and not letting users optionally retain Google's in iOS 6. "This got Apple into the game for maps for itself," said Gottheil. "It has to be there. But pushing Google off the platform, that would help Apple only a little right now."

By removing Google Maps from the iPhone and iPad, Apple may have affected Google's revenue to some very small degree. But there's more than money at stake at the moment.

"Every customer using Google Maps is grist for Google," said Gottheil. "The more you use is, the more they know about you and locations. But maps haven't yet become a very substantial source of revenue, as Google and I once thought."

Mapping technology, combined with the user's location -- an integral part of both Google's and Apple's apps -- allows for location-based advertising, to, say, display an ad for a nearby restaurant only when the user is in the area.

"I still think that location-based advertising will be very valuable at some point," Gottheil said. "But it's taking time to develop."

In the meantime, the competition between Google and Apple is a good deal for customers. Gottheil called it a "net win" for consumers.

The competition has already resulted in a major upgrade to Google Maps' feature set on iOS. Before this September, Maps did not provide voice-guided turn-by-turn directions, something Apple brought to iOS 6. The new Google Maps, however, includes voiced directions.

"Now there's competition to deliver the best maps," Gottheil said. "That all good for us."

Gregg Keizer covers Microsoft, security issues, Apple, Web browsers and general technology breaking news for Computerworld. Follow Gregg on Twitter at @gkeizer, on Google+ or subscribe to Gregg's RSS feed. His email address is gkeizer@computerworld.com.

See more by Gregg Keizer on Computerworld.com.

Read more about mobile apps in Computerworld's Mobile Apps Topic Center.

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