Apple’s Mapping Problem and How Google Forced The Issue

by techsnarkblog

You’ll hear a lot about the feature downgrade of Maps in Apple’s release of iOS 6. Much of the media assumes this is the next step in Apple’s war against Google, as Dan Lyons suggests. However, there’s actually more evidence of the reverse: that these changes are part of Google getting the edge on Apple by limiting the licensing of Google’s mapping data.

First, a summary of the changes to the Map app on the iPhone: this app was always written and maintained by Apple, but it used Google’s back-end data for maps, traffic, and navigation. With the release of iOS 6, Apple has switched providers and is no longer dependent on Google’s maps.

Apple has improved the app and added new features: 3D maps, 3D fly-over, GPS-style turn-by-turn navigation, incorporated data with Yelp, and others. Missing, however, will be Google’s transit navigation and streetview functionality. Furthermore, Apple’s new ecosystem is not as rich as Google’s: traffic data will be lost for 24 countries that currently have it with iOS 5. Not all countries are getting turn-by-turn navigation.

Google has offered turn-by-turn navigation on Android devices since 2009, but this feature was absent on iOS devices. Back then, Google made the following statement as published by AppleInsider:

“Millions of users experience Google Maps on the iPhone. We will continue to work with Apple to bring innovation, including Latitude and Navigation, to users but you’ll have to speak to Apple about availability.”

Google seems to have wanted to incorporate Google Latitude into Apple devices. Google Latitude is a combination of Foursquare and Find my Friends, where the app tracks where you are and you can check into locations. Not only can your friends access this data, if given permission, but this also means Google is collecting this information.

Latitude is not anonymous tracking, and Apple has maintained a strict barrier on what user information third parties can collect from Apple’s ecosystem. As an example, the publishing industry demanded subscriber information from Apple for all magazines and newspapers published sold Apple’s platform. Apple said no at first, and later only allowed customer information to be past onward to publishers when the the end-user explicitly gave permission.

To further back this theory, Business Insider published an article quoting a former Google employee, Dr. Ed Lu:

“… when Apple wanted to get access to the data to do its own thing with maps, Google was equally difficult. Lu cautioned that he wasn’t directly involved in conversations between Apple and Google, and his information was “third hand,” but he said Apple’s relationship with Google deteriorated over what Apple wanted to do with Google maps.”

One can assume that Google wanted more end-user information from Apple, and Apple wasn’t willing to pass this along.

Apple likely knew they would need to make the split from Google back in 2009. Android was moving ahead with Google Maps, and Apple was being left behind unable to use Google’s data for features like turn-by-turn GPS-style navigation.

Apple also removed YouTube from its iOS 6 build, but this is largely a win-win for both companies. Google released their own YouTube app that now contains advertising, something Apple did not have in their own app. Meanwhile, consumers get a product team focused on a better YouTube app (Sidebar: I wasn’t a fan of Apple’s YouTube app, and I’m not a fan of Google’s, but hopefully there will be improvements here in the future).

While complaints of the new iPhone looking similar to the old one and the cost of the new adapter have made the news, the controversy behind the Maps app is likely just beginning. US is among the few countries that will see the least amount of feature loss (arguably, the US will have a net-gain in features), but internationally (including here in Canada) we’ll be seeing a reduction in the Maps app capabilities. At least, at first.

What’s the next step?

Overall this will work itself out over the next year. Traffic information needs data-points, and as devices are sold and the demand for this information increases, so will the ability for Apple to offer traffic data.

For transit navigation and schedule data, Apple has opened up the ecosystem to third parties. This might cost the customer a few bucks, but expect to see apps that will offer local transit information and these apps will likely incorporate directly into the Maps app. Some of these apps already exist, they’re just not incorporated into Maps.

Still, as John Gruber argued back in May, “Apple’s homegrown mapping data has to be great.” It might be for the US, but not internationally. Even in the US, we’re already seeing business owners complain that their businesses aren’t as easy to find in iOS 6.

These will be the growing pains for Apple, on an otherwise very successful launch of the iPhone 5, but all evidence points to this being a necessary move on Apple’s part to expand their independence.