by Greg Sterling
After I wrote the story saying that Apple was going to replace Google Maps with its own product when it rolls out as part of iOS 6, I had a conversation with a friend. He reminded me that Apple is actually in control of the majority of elements of the Maps app on the iPhone.
Accordingly, “Google Maps” on the iPhone is not exactly that. Google provides the local data and some other things but Apple dictates and controls the ultimate user experience.
Apple controls mapping on iOS
I had logically assumed that we weren’t seeing all the cool Google Maps updates and features (i.e., indoor navigation) on the iPhone because Google was withholding them for competitive reasons: to boost Android. This theory of mine may be quite inaccurate.
When Google Navigation was first introduced in November 2009, Vic Gundotra (then working on mobile) said that Google would bring Navigation to the iPhone when Apple was ready (there were also some technical issues at the time). Three years later it hasn’t shown up (maybe it got lost on the way).
Seriously, what if Apple was actually the company that didn’t want a full-featured version of Google Maps on the iPhone? But why?
Maybe it’s Apple that wanted a weaker “Google Maps”
Here’s a bit of conspiracy theory: What if Apple wanted to replace Google Maps from a very early point and the company was biding its time until it could acquire and build the core assets and expertise to do so? Maybe that early point was when former CEO Steve Jobs’ attitude toward Google changed, when he began to feel that Android was “a stolen product”?
To continue with my conjecture, maybe Apple thought it would be harder to wean iPhone users off a stronger Google-powered mapping product than the comparatively weak one that exists today. I know this seems very contrary to Apple’s culture and corporate ethos. Yet replacing a weaker product with a stronger one is a lot easier than taking away a strong product from users who’ve come to depend on it.
We have seen the claims about the strength of Apple’s forthcoming mapping product but haven’t seen it in action. A Google Maps app for the iPhone with features comparable to the Android version would be a lot harder to displace than the current more basic version.
Let’s assume that at some point in Q3 this year Google’s direct mapping involvement with Apple ends. What could Google do? What might it do?
An unexpected boon for Google in getting bounced?
It could of course create an iOS Google Maps app, just like the many other Google apps for the iPhone: Google+, Gmail, Earth, Voice, Books, Latitude, Shopper, Places and so on.
There’s also some support for my just-hatched conspiracy theory in the fact that all the Google iOS apps mentioned are not crippled or diminished versions of their Android brethren. They’re as good or in some instances stronger than the Android versions.
Given all that, why would Google countenance a less-than-optimal version of one it its flagship products on the iPhone? And why would the intensely competitive Apple tolerate a clearly weaker product that is so central to the iPhone experience?
It’s curious and a little inexplicable. Very soon it may all be academic as Google loses its mapping role on the iPhone. However in the wake of that likely inevitability, Google could roll out a more full-featured mapping app with all the bells and whistles (e.g., Navigation) and thus provide a better overall experience than the iPhone-Google Maps of today.
Google might lose some traffic and usage in the near term; Google Maps is the top LBS app and one of the top two apps on iOS and Android generally. But getting booted out of its position as official iOS mapping app might ultimately turn out to be a good thing and potential boon for Google.