All mapped out

I think it is pretty clear to everyone that location is a key concept in mobile data services today, whether you are using native apps or Web-based services. So it came as a bit of a surprise that Apple released their home-grown iOS 6 map application to replace the one based on Google’s map data. Google has spent about 7 years collecting map data, including satellite images, street images, locations of significant structures/businesses, public transport routes and timetables and much more. This made Google’s solution an excellent component in location-based services. There were a few map-related omissions in Google’s offering for the iPhone/iPad platforms, such as being unable to get a rotatable 3D perspective, or to have turn-by-turn directions spoken out load (as one might expect while driving and unable to view the screen). Nevertheless, the pre-iOS 6 map app was entirely functional and exceptionally accurate.

It is understandable that Apple would consider providing a map app of its own, particularly given that Google is now competing with Apple in the mobile phone platform space.

But what is not understandable is how Apple went about creating its alternative. In comes a rotatable 3D perspective (of a small area within a small number of selected cities) plus turn-by-turn spoken directions; out goes a noticeable subset of map data (and not just seldom used rural roads), out goes high resolution satellite imagery for much of the globe (and in some cases it is replaced by pictures of clouds!), out goes public transport routes and timetables, out goes street-level images, out goes many business markers, out goes accurate searching, even the accuracy of city locations has suffered greatly.

In short, this is a huge step backwards for location-based services.

Apart from the stand-alone map app, this will be a problem for many other map-based applications that rely on mapping being present within iOS. Any of these apps that relied on the now-removed features will be rendered useless.

So why did Apple step boldly (and perhaps blindly) into the mobile mapping world? Undoubtedly many observers will ponder this question and, given the recent bad press it is attracting, there will be many within Apple asking the same question. In the search for answers, one should consider that Apple and Google are no longer partners but have become serious competitors, so ousting Google from playing a key role in Apple’s mobile platform makes strategic sense. One should also understand that mapping is a massive revenue generator, much like Web searching, though end users often perceive these as free services. They are not free. You are paying for them with your attention, and while they have your attention they have an opportunity to sell you something. It’s an arrangement that the general public have long accepted, and it has been around long before the iPhone, long before the Web and long before technology became central to our lives.

There’s no such thing as a free lunch. (Or map.)

Now that many iOS users have upgraded to version 6, and many of them are complaining about the disappointing map app, what is likely to happen next? I don’t have a crystal ball, but here are a few scenarios:

  • Google releases a free map app for iOS 6. This satisfies those who use the map app in a stand-alone manner, but does nothing for the existing iOS apps that rely on the mapping API exposed by the OS.
  • Google tries to release a map app for iOS 6 but Apple’s strict app assessment process blocks the release long enough for iOS 6 users to get used to Apple Map’s limitations.
  • Apple issues a “point release” for their map app to add public transport data. However, just like the 3D flyover maps, it is restricted to high-profile urban areas, leaving much of the world ignored and increasingly annoyed.
  • Google enhances its Android map app to have features comparable to those introduced in iOS 6, and another patent war breaks out.
  • Google releases a library and API that makes it easy for iOS app developers to bind to Google’s map service, breathing new life into broken third-party apps.
  • Apple updates iOS 6 to allow users to select their default mapping service, opening the door to Google and other mapping providers.
  • Google introduces Street View for mobile browsers using familiar Google Map UI features, making the Web app as powerful as the native app that Apple recently evicted.
  • Google does nothing, and people switch to Android phones.

Of course, there are many more scenarios and only time will tell how this story will play out. Your guess is as good as anyone else’s.

References within a day of the release of iOS 6:


Categorised as: Business, Operating Systems, Technology

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