Google is aiming to blunt Apple’s upcoming abandonment of Google Maps. As Apple moves away from using Google as the built-in mapping product for iOS, Google is trying to keep control of the mobile mapping market in the way we like to see: By innovating on the product. New features from the Google mapping team will make its maps more fun and more useful.
Will they make Google Maps more fun and useful than Apple’s maps? That’s the big question.
3D: Table stakes
Both Google and Apple now have technology to create 3D maps that include buildings. Neither has rolled the product out yet. Today at Google’s San Francisco office, we saw Google demonstrate its new 3D mapping product that will use its own library of aerial imagery to build fully-modeled 3D cities.
The ability to fly through a city and see all its buildings and trees as if you were “flying in your own private helicopter” is incredibly cool. In the demo we saw, most buildings looked close to photorealistic, although some (in particular the ATT ballpark), had strange artifacts showing.
This 3D feature would be a great spiff for
Android users and a great reason for
iPhone users to download a new Google Maps app for that platform. Except for one thing: Very soon, this won’t be a unique feature. Apple bought C3 Technologies in October, and that company does exactly what the new 3D feature in Google Maps does: It turns aerial photos into 3D models.
So the game will be coverage and usability. Apple’s got the leg up in designing beautiful interfaces, but Google certainly has more experience in geo interfaces, both grown in-house (Google Maps) and from acquisitions, like Keyhole, the foundation of Google Earth, acquired in 2004.
So 3D isn’t going to be a slam-dunk differentiator. What about Google’s mobile feature that lets users download a city map for offline use?
Offline: Limited use
This is a good and very useful feature. It’s the kind of thing geeky people tend to ask for and will use, but it’s not one of those differentiators that masses of people will change a smartphone buying decision over. Especially since no carrier will dare advertise it. Picture the ad campaign: “Try offline maps on our Galaxy phones, which work even when our network doesn’t!”
This would be a great feature for Apple, though. The hardware company isn’t beholden to carriers. And an offline map library would fit well in the iCloud pitch. Will Apple ape this feature? Will it matter?
Street View expansion: Ok, that’s fun
What ultimately does matter in mobile mapping is coverage. Google has a very large head start in data: It started by gathering and buying publicly-availalbe maps and satellite imagery, then layered in aerial photos, then went out and made its own library of Street View images. Now it’s going to replace its aerial city images, via contracted and “its own” airplanes, I was told (no drones yet). It is also taking its mapping mission indoors and to the great outdoors.
Google talked about its new Street View trolley cart system for getting photos from inside buildings, like art galleries and airports. It also unveiled its backpack Street View camera system for capturing images from hiking trails, ski slopes, and other areas accessible only on foot. These new Street View vehicles join the Google fleet of
cars, tricycles, and snowmobiles around the world.
Apple is unlikely to launch with the same depth of indoor and off-piste data as Google, and it probably won’t matter much. The main battleground is for city street maps. The rest is for fun. For Google, which makes money from advertising, the indoor mapping will open up a revenue stream, but it isn’t going to make much of a dent.
We need to hear more about cars
As I wrote in my wishful-thinking post before Google’s latest announcement, the real platform battleground for mapping is not the smartphone. Google will run the maps on Android; Apple will on iPhone. Some users will use third-party apps (like Waze on Android or Google Maps on iOS). But cars are a green field and the most important platform for nav apps.
For cars, and the necessary feature of traffic reporting, the more users you have running your geolocation software, the more data you have about how fast people are moving. Apple’s adoption of its own mapping platform means it will now get access to that data from its iPhone users, assuming (and it’s a big assumption) that Apple can hurdle the privacy issues over gathering that data.
Once, or if, Apple and Google are at parity in gathering traffic data, then the battle for the car can begin. Apple will be far behind Google here, though, thanks to its we-must-control-everything attitude on how its products are displayed. Car guys don’t like that so much. But with Android, developers can do what they want.
Back to smartphones, which is what matters right now: Apple’s defection is the best thing to happen to Google Maps. It’s forcing Google to up its game. The Google team has, so far, been doing a good job keeping the innovations coming and keeping its maps database growing. But now with Apple gunning for it, it’s going to have to do even better.
What can Apple do with its maps to leapfrog Google? Stay tuned. All should be revealed next week at WWDC.
One of the most immediate effects of Steve Jobs’ legacy on Apple is an animosity towards Google fueled by what Jobs saw as the outright copying of iOS by Android. Big tech companies will always be battling titans, but this is more. This is personal.
Still, the two companies have been bound by the mutual dependence since Google’s services are bundled into iOS. And iMore reports that Google may make four times the ad revenue off of their use in iOS than they do from their own Android platform. Apple wants to change that. Apple has already begun intermediating search queries though Siri, effectively cutting Google out of the valuable identity information associated with those searches. Next up is that other large data components on iOS, maps.
It was widely reported yesterday that Apple will likely announce at its WWDC in June that the new version of the built-in maps app in iOS6 will not be fed by Google maps. Instead, Apple has developed its own, in-house 3-D mapping database, based on the acquisition of three mapping software companies between 2009 and 2011, Placebase, C3 Technologies, and Poly9. The stunning 3D image above is from C3, which, according to the company, uses “previously classified image processing technology… automated software and advanced algorithms… to rapidly assemble extremely precise 3D models, and seamlessly integrate them with traditional 2D maps, satellite images, street level photography and user generated images.” The video below shows a flyover of Oslo using C3′s technology.
So if this report is true, Apple will have a new maps app with much more highly-detailed imagery than Google, collected through military-style reconnaissance without the (ahem) gathering of any personal information. It is a good bet that Apple will finesse the transitions between the different map modes far better than Google’s wonky shift from “map view” to “street view.” What could go wrong? Although Apple now owns the source and can engineer accordingly, the new app likely runs more image data through the pipe, so performance on mobile devices—where it’s most critical—is going to be an issue. Apple may have to build in detection of the processor speed of the requesting iOS device and send a thinner stream to older iPhones than to the new quad-core iPads.
There is obviously an interesting business story here about how Apple and other tech companies are trying to chip away at Google’s dominance of web services. But even more interesting, to me, is the end-user’s story. The bloody competition between Apple and Google is leading Apple to create more innovative user experiences for its customers, and that is a good thing. An operating system is just a container for content, and recreating content is much more difficult than just knocking off its container. By creating a new source for the content of maps on iOS, Apple is making their platform more distinct from Android, as if to say, “You can only copy so much.” Although Apple is always improving user experience, this particular effort might have not happened had Steve Jobs not threatened to go “thermonuclear.”
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