Google Maps returned to the iPhone with a bang over the weekend, garnering 10 million downloads in its first 48 hours on the Apple app store. In the three months since Apple released iOS 6, including its own maps, the company has been mocked and vilified for a product that many have found inferior. The controversy, which was probably overblown, might have taking some of the polish off Apple’s reputation, but Google’s rapid and fairly spectacular response is a story unto itself.
A couple of things to get out of the way first. The new Google Maps on the iPhone is terrific, as is Google Maps everywhere else. In fact, Google Maps on iPhone is currently better than it is on Android. I’m not the only person who feels that way. And, just to clarify, the “better part” here is the fit-and-finish of the app. As far as functionality and ease of use, Google Maps and Apple’s app are pretty similar. Google trumps Apple on accuracy and richness of data, which makes sense given Google has more than 7,000 people working on making those maps great.
When you consider just how many people that is — it’s nearly twice as many as all of Facebook — you get a sense of the strategic importance of maps to Google. (Maps remain important to Apple as well, which is rumored to be in talks with Foursquare to improve its local data.) As more and more of search goes mobile, Google has seen average revenue per search decline. The good news, however, is that people on the go are always looking for something and that’s why maps are so important to Google. It should surprise no one that it took less than three months to produce a beautiful, polished Google Maps app for the iPhone.
And while the team behind the maps is pretty far removed from the group that produces the Nexus line of tablets and smartphones, it’s worth comparing the success of Maps for iPhone with Nexus. Last month, Google released a moderately well reviewed phone called the Nexus 4, that oddly lacked state-of-art 4G LTE data. Apparently building few, the phone sold out quickly and has been essentially unavailable ever since. Google let it be known that the supply problems are the fault of LG, made few explicit promises of better supply anytime soon and left it at that.
Given that this is a Google-branded product, sold on its own website, you might expect it would get better treatment from the mothership than “we’re sorry you don’t have it yet, but we can’t do much for you”, but the truth is the Nexus products just don’t matter very much to Google. They are supposed to light the way in the Android market as “best in class” devices, but even when they get it right the effect is often muted. Consider Google’s new tablets, the Nexus 7 and 10. The smaller one, in particular, is almost universally praised, more so even than the aforementioned Nexus 4 phone.