It’s official. Apple’s new Maps in iOS 6 have problems so serious that even Apple CEO Tim Cook has issued a public apology about them. What does Apple do next? Going back to Google-powered Maps is unlikely but not out-of-the-question. More likely, Apple will push through the pain. However, it could reconsider whether maps really should be a a home-built product.
Ripping Out Google
Previously, Maps in iOS were largely powered by Google’s mapping data (and remain that way in iOS 5). Google has been building its mapping product for years, something that makes sense for a search engine. Many search needs are local in nature; “owning” maps as a search engine is as important as “owning” an index of the web. So, Google has excellent mapping data.
Apple dropped Google from Maps in iOS 6 in part because of the infamous thermonuclear war Steve Jobs had declared in January 2010, in his anger of Android being deemed a ripoff of iOS. Google’s move into mobile strained relations between the two companies. They went from close partners to fighting rivals.
Given this, Apple depending on Google for its mapping data seemed to make little long-term sense. It effectively ripped off the bandage, as long-time Apple watcher MG Siegler called it earlier this week, and dived into using its own core maps rather than Google’s.
The rip, as it’s so clear now, was painful. It’s more painful in that despite iOS 6 being out with developers for months ahead of last week’s consumer release, none of these problems were really spotted.
Developers Aren’t Consumers
Here, Apple’s learned a lesson. Developers aren’t consumers. Microsoft has been allowing eager consumers to try its own new Windows 8 operating system for months precisely to get consumer feedback on problems. Perhaps in the future, we’ll see Apple decide that iOS should also be pitched to early adopter consumers who want to test new features and give feedback.
Reapplying Google Isn’t Easy
Unfortunately, Apple probably can’t reapply the Google bandage, despite the fact that it has a contract with Google to still receive mapping data. That’s why many with iOS 5 still have Google-powered maps. That contract remains in force.
But changing back to Google isn’t easy, if you consider Cook’s apology letter:
As time progressed, 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.
To get important new features, as I’ve bolded, Cook said Apple needed to build a new version of Maps from the ground-up, as I’ve also bolded.
That might not be absolutely true. For example, Google may have been willing to provide turn-by-turn navigation to Apple. John Paczkowski at AllThingsD detailed this week that the Apple and Google grappled over this. Google seems to have wanted greater branding; Google might not have been willing to give turn-by-turn at all; Apple might not have wanted to offer any terms to incent Google.
It echoed similar things to what we heard earlier this year from the Wall Street Journal (our summary here) in the tussle over maps. Whatever the complicated reasons, what emerged is that Apple decided it had to go it alone, rather than switching over to core maps from Google or another provider, such as Nokia.
Now that new features are in place, it might be too difficult to simply switch back to core maps from Google. For example, if you use Maps in iOS 6 to find a location based on Google Maps, then if you want turn-by-turn navigation to that location, how does the hand-off work? Does the Google location get sent within the app to parts that use TomTom for the GPS navigation? Does the contract between Apple and Google even allow this?
Potentially, you could release a completely separate GPS application that’s native on iOS 6. In hindsight, this might even have made much more sense (Android has a “Navigation” app that’s separate from Google Maps). But now that iOS 6 is out, maybe this is considered too confusing.
Apple’s Still Dazed & Confused
Then again, Apple’s really only been dealing with all this for the past week and may not itself not yet know what’s the best answer. It asked for patience last week, and it effectively did the same again today, promising things would get better:
In just over a week, iOS users with the new Maps have already searched for nearly half a billion locations. The more our customers use our Maps the better it will get and we greatly appreciate all of the feedback we have received from you.
That’s true. It will get better. But it won’t get much better in a week. Huge improvements in a month will be a challenge. It’s likely going to take years for Apple to catch up fully with other providers, if it stays on the home-grown path. As Apple fully digests this in the coming weeks, perhaps it will consider more drastic short-term measures to improve Maps, such as maybe bringing back some core data from other partners. But even that will take time to engineer.
Google’s Short-Term Gain & Maybe Long-Term Stumble
Apple’s life would certainly be easier if Google Maps were available as an app. That would give iOS users the mapping product they were used to. But it’s not, in part because Google itself seems not to have anticipated that it would get dumped from the native Map apps in the way it was.
Google — and Android — certainly get to have some short-term satisfaction today that it has a better mapping product. Even Cook called out Google’s maps as an alternative in today’s apology letter. Perhaps this will even boost Android sales.
However, I think mapgate is unlikely to be some tipping point that knocks the iPhone down. People do use the iPhone for much more than maps, and even with its mapping problems, it’s not like those maps are completely useless. They can actually work OK in cases.
Last week, I used my iPhone 5, my Android Galaxy Nexus and a dedicated GPS TomTom unit to give me turn-by-turn directions to a location in Los Angeles. Then my head exploded from three different things trying to give me directions. No, seriously, they all did fine.
For the iPhone, this was a 100% improvement. Turn-by-turn was something I simply didn’t have, not as a native app, on my iPhone 4S.
Google might look back in a few months and wonder if it missed an opportunity by not having a true app ready to go, right now, for iOS. By doing so, it might have locked many iOS 6 users to its mapping platform for years to come. Heck, Cook might have touted the Google Maps app today, rather than the inferior experience of using a home page icon to link to Google’s browser-based maps. By the time a Google Maps app emerges, assuming it does, people might not care to switch so much.
Of course, we also don’t know if there are other issues that have slowed Google up, such as perhaps being prevented from releasing an app, or being unable to release an app with turn-by-turn, since Apple may have signaled that could be deemed to mimic native functionality on the phone and not be allowed.
It’s easy to say Google may have missed an opportunity when not all the facts are known. But even if it missed a long-term opportunity, there’s no doubt it had a great short-term win. So have many other mapping providers, piling on, as we wrote this week, to win over dissatisfied Apple users.
Apple Lesson: Maybe It Shouldn’t Try To “Own” Maps
As for Apple, perhaps the long-term lesson it might take away from this is that it should continue working with partners rather than trying to “own” particular services. Even partnering with a competitor like Google may make more sense than going head-to-head. After all, it’s not like Apple’s trying to build its own search engine.
As I wrote earlier this year, rather than thermonuclear war with Google, Apple actually seemed to be running a policy of containment, when it came to search. Apple didn’t dump Google, but Siri effectively allowed it to route things away from Google to other providers, when that makes sense.
One advantage to this is that when things go wrong, as with Siri and abortion searches last year, or the idea that Siri was recommending other smartphones as being better than the iPhone, it’s the partners that take the fall, not Apple, not ultimately. When Apple owns the core data, it has to take the fall itself, as it did today.
But Apple had to “own” maps, because maps are so closely tied to what we do with our phones, right? That’s one line of thinking. But why? Because Apple might find the several different excellent mapping providers out there might suddenly all decide not to license data to it?
If you believe that, then you should also believe the argument that Apple should own a record label or a Hollywood studio, because at any time, its existing partners might rob it of content for iTunes, content that so many consume on their iPhones and iPads.
It may be that Apple will reconsider whether it really needs to have its own maps. Personally, with the investment it has already made, I doubt that. I think now that it’s in, Apple will ride the situation out. But I think it’ll leave the company wary about how much core data it needs to own in other areas. I sure don’t see an Apple search engine coming along any time soon.
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- Reports: Google Incredibly Didn’t Anticipate Being Dropped From iOS 6 Maps, “Scrambling” To Create App
- Everybody With A Maps App Is Piling On Apple
- Why Apple Is Going “Containment” Not “Thermonuclear” Against Google In iOS 6