Can Apple Do Maps Better Than Google?

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Apple dropped a huge bomb this week with the announcement that it would be replacing Google Maps with a mapping solution of its very own in iOS 6. This is a massive change; Google Maps has been the default mapping application on iOS devices since the first iPhone launched in 2007. We’ve been privy to rumblings and hints that this might be coming, starting with news that Apple had replaced Google’s geocoder with its own in iOS 5. Now, all that speculation and rumor has given way to harsh reality: Apple is continuing to slowly and steadily disentangle itself from Google.

Which makes all the sense in the world, of course. When Apple and Google partnered to bring YouTube, Maps, and other Google services to the iPhone, the landscape was quite different. RIM, Palm, Nokia, and Microsoft battled for control of the smartphone space; the iPhone was still a glorified, app-less feature phone; and though it already owned the Android OS, Google was a long way from bringing its first device to market. A partnership between the search giant and the new-kid-on-the-block smartphone maker made a lot of sense.

Since then, though, both Android and iOS have exploded in popularity, locking Google and Apple into an epic battle of platforms as they struggle to top one another in the smartphone and tablet markets. Apple’s move with Maps is not just the latest, but perhaps the most dramatic example of how distant the two superpowers have become.

The real question is, can Apple do it right? It isn’t the first company to replace Google Maps on mobile devices; Microsoft mandates that Bing Maps ship as the default on its Windows Phone devices, Nokia offers its own Nokia Maps solution on its WP7 phones, and Bing Maps even found itself the principal option on webOS devices before they were Apotheker’d. But what about Apple? Will the shift to a new default mapping solution help or hurt customers? Let’s see what the magic 8 ball has to say about this.

Boston, iOS 6 style.

As I mention in my forthcoming Siri-on-a-tablet video, I’m using iOS 6 beta on the new iPad. As Jaime Rivera notes toward the end of his excellent iOS 6 preview video, this version of the beta is pretty unstable, and the Maps app is no exception. I can’t run a search without the app crashing, and things like Yelp reviews and Flyover don’t seem to be enabled yet for my humble digs here in Beantown.

But the mere existence of those features betrays the ground-shift happening here. By integrating Yelp reviews, Apple is doing an end-run around Google, eliminating traffic from iOS devices that touches the company’s local-search services. As iOS 6’s market penetration ramps up following its fall launch, that’s going to put some hurt on Mountain View. Combined with Siri’s new OpenTable integration that bypasses still more local-search results, it seems clear Apple is staying true to Steve Jobs’ wishes: the “thermonuclear” war with Google won’t just be fought with patents. Rather, Apple looks to be trying to put the search company in a choke hold. A choke hold that will only grow tighter as Apple releases more features like Flyover, vector-based graphics, and turn-by-turn navigation, features on par with (or possibly better than) Android’s offerings.

Google isn’t standing still, of course. As Joe Levi points out in his article on iOS 6’s effects on Android, Mountain View recently announced a bevy of new feature enhancements to the mobile version of Google Earth, including offline map capability for up to 100 countries around the world and enhanced 3D rendering of cities where more than 300 million people live and work. It’s pretty clear that Google knew this was coming -it was pretty hard to ignore the signs- and it’s taking big steps to stay competitive.

Google Earth’s enhanced 3D view.

Apple has a huge climb ahead of it. It doesn’t just need to match the existing feature set of Google Maps; like leading the receiver in (American) football, it has to project what Google’s future enhancements will be, and work to out-do those. What it can’t match, it will have to downplay with marketing. Since we’re talking about Apple, the advertising part shouldn’t be too hard. It’s the feature implementation, with the help of “TomTom and others,” that will make or break this service. Getting the new Maps right is even more crucial if, as seems likely, Google Maps will remain available to iOS customers via the App Store; if customers hate the Apple version, they’ll just flee back to Google’s embrace faster than people fled Ping.

So can the Cupertino team come out on top in this new battle for cartographic supremacy? Only time will tell, but my guess is that they’re going to give Google quite a run for its money. Sure, Apple’s seen its share of blunders, from the Final Cut X fiasco to the aforementioned Ping fizzle, but those weren’t nearly as full of the potential for disaster as is this major shift in a core iOS feature. I think Apple knows this, and I think it’s going to pour all of its resources into making this venture a success. Because you don’t kick off one of the first major battles in a war with substandard weaponry. And if you do, you’d better be ready to improve quickly- that or keep the white flag clipped to the halyards.

It’s reasonable to doubt Apple’s prospects for success in this new fight; it is, after all, an entirely new field for the company. But we should all keep in mind what happened when Apple showed up on the established turf of the mobile-phone space five years ago. After the original iPhone announcement in 2007, Steve Ballmer gave an interview in which he conceded that “it may sell very well,” but essentially laughed off the new contender:

And Ballmer wasn’t alone. Even before the official iPhone announcement, then-Palm CEO Ed Colligan uttered what has since become one of the most oft-cited examples of short-sightedness in recent memory:

“[Palm has] learned and struggled for a few years here figuring out how to make a decent phone . . . PC guys are not going to just figure this out. They’re not going to just walk in.”

Of course, that’s exactly what Apple did. And considering its newly-acquired expertise and partnerships, as well as what’s at stake, I’d say there’s a good chance that Apple will indeed “just walk in” to the mobile mapping world, and take it by storm. Even though that’s unlikely to knock Google completely off its pedestal as the world’s preferred mobile mapper, it will definitely force the brains at Mountain View to work harder to stay on top. And it will absolutely amp up the heat between the two heavyweights, whose warring platforms grow a little further apart in functionality and user experience every day.

We’ll need to wait for the official release of iOS 6 to see how Apple’s new Maps app is received by the general public. In the meantime, we’ll keep you updated on developments and enhancements in the beta versions. Stay tuned; it only gets more exciting from here.

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Disagree? Agree? Have a different answer to this question? “Navigate” to the comments below and share your brutally honest opinion – just make sure you do so in a delightfully civil manner. 

 

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About The Author
Michael Fisher
Michael Fisher has followed the world of mobile technology for over ten years as hobbyist, retailer, and reviewer. A lengthy stint as a Sprint Nextel employee and a long-time devotion to webOS have cemented his love for the underdog platforms of the world. In addition to serving as Pocketnow's Reviews Editor, Michael is a stage, screen, and voice actor, as well as co-founder of a profitable YouTube-based business. He lives in Boston, MA.Read more about Michael Fisher!