SAN FRANCISCO: Get ready for the mobile map wars. For many people, phones have become an important way to navigate the world, and mobile maps are at the core of the journey.
They are often the critical element in commerce, socializing and search. So far, Google has reigned supreme in the mobile map world, with its maps on every iPhone sold so far – and, of course, on every phone based on its own Android operating system.
Last week, though, Apple gave notice it would enter the battle, announcing that in the fall, its phones would no longer carry Google maps, but instead would have Apple’s own map service built in, part of its new mobile operating system. Maps are simply too important to be left to a rival.
The question is: Can Apple build a map service that does as good a job, or a better one, than Google has?
If Apple slips up, consumers in the highly competitive smartphone market may have a good reason to turn to Android phones. If Apple succeeds, Google will be under pressure at a time when it already has to deal with other competitors in map services.
“It makes Apple more valuable and denies Google a lot of user data, and a brand presence, on the iPhone,” said Ben Bajarin, an analyst with the technology research firm Creative Strategies. If Apple cannot meet or exceed Google’s maps, he added, “it will irk their power users,” who are the most valuable customers.
Apple’s move into maps was not exactly a surprise. It has bought a few companies that make mapping features, like three-dimensional visualizations, and has secured rights to data like the names and layouts of streets in over 100 countries from TomTom, a big digital map company based in the Netherlands.
But making digital maps is not easy. Google has spent years working on its services, pouring all kinds of resources into the effort, including its Street View project to photograph and map the world. It will be hard to duplicate that depth and breadth.
“Apple has gotten into a place that is very technical, quite a challenge, and like nothing they’ve done before,” said Noam Bardin, chief executive of Waze, a mapping service that provides real-time traffic information by tracking the movement of phones.
Still, it would be foolish to underestimate Apple, said John Musser, editor of ProgrammableWeb, an online service that follows mobile application development.
“Apple so far has close to nothing in maps, because they never had a product before,” Musser said. “But they are hardly empty-handed.”
Mapping technology is a growing field that draws on everything from aerial photography to the movement of the continents, to individual comments on websites about a favorite hiking trail or a bad dining experience. ProgrammableWeb counts 240 mapping-related services that people building mobile map applications can draw from. That is up 73 percent from a year ago, and 243 percent from 2009.
Apple has offered few details about its plans for the map service, which is part of the new operating system, iOS 6, that was unveiled at the company’s annual developer conference in San Francisco.
Some of the features may come from companies that it now owns. Apple may buy other features – like store locations and hours, and information about walking paths, landmarks and public transportation – from data companies, independent developers and consumer information services like Yelp.
Apple can expect to pay a lot of money for this information. Google declined to comment on what it spends on its map business, but others in the industry estimate that the figure is $500 million to perhaps $1 billion annually, equal to a fifth of its budget for research and development.
For consumers, an important part of the Apple service is likely to be the apps that support and enhance it. This week, Apple is set to widely release its instructions, known as a software development kit, to guide developers in designing these apps.
Those instructions are important to hundreds of independent software developers like Scott Rafer, whose startup is making user-friendly walking directions for maps, based on things like landmarks and street views. He hopes to produce an app that is a hit in the app store, or even wins Apple’s eye as it looks for more partners.
“We’re all trying to figure out the next 100 days” before Apple releases the operating system to consumers, Rafer said. “Does Apple want gorgeous features, or do they want ubiquity?”
Once Apple releases its new service, iPhone users will still be able to reach Google maps through the browser in their phone. But in practice most people go with the default map. Even if you do go to the browser for a Google map, you would not have any of the associated services, like connecting directly to a map location from an address written in an email.
For Google, losing the maps spot on the iPhone is no small matter. According to the research firm comScore, in March, people with iPhones spent, on average, 35 percent more time using the maps on their devices than Android users did, although over all there are far more Android owners using maps. The maps feature is the second most popular one on the iPhone, comScore says, after iTunes.
By losing the maps spot, Google will lose data about iPhone users’ locations, destinations and driving and shopping habits – information that is useful to a company selling ads. It also helps Google provide local search information, an area Apple has already moved into with Siri, its voice-activated search tool.
“Being in maps and getting that data affects Google’s revenue from things like sponsored links, and it affects search quality,” Bajarin said. “People could move from saying ‘Google it’ to ‘Ask Siri.”‘
Google has other rivals in the mapping business as well. Microsoft is coming out with its own new mobile operating system at about the same time, using its Bing Maps service. Yahoo Maps, also popular, relies primarily on maps from Navteq, which is owned by Nokia. Bing Maps and MapQuest also use Navteq maps.
There are even rumors that Amazon, whose Kindle reader runs a version of Android, will revamp its comparison shopping app in time for Christmas, in a new mobile device. That could also require maps.
None of the four companies would discuss the details of their plans for mobile maps.
Google initially relied on outside sources for map information, as Apple will at first, but it now pays for its own planes, cars, bicycles, snowmobiles, hikers, satellite data and geographers, among other things, to produce comprehensive online maps. A few days before Apple’s announcement, Google held a news conference with little news but lots of details that underlined how much Apple would be paying to play this game.
At the end of its last fiscal quarter Apple had $110 billion in cash and securities, so it can afford the battle. How well it can share information with developers and integrate their services into a single experience remains to be seen.
“Every rendering of every map on the iPhone was going to Google,” Musser said. “Apple had to do something, since maps are the fundamental unit of a mobile Web.”