What Google Maps Actually Just Unveiled: Anxiety Over Apple Maps

You want to know how I know that Google is very concerned about the forthcoming launch of Apple’s own mapping product for iOS? I simply followed the Google Maps press conference today.

The mere fact that Google decided to hold a press conference just five days before WWDC (where Apple’s mapping product is widely expected to be unveiled) said pretty much all you needed to know. When it was announced last week, it seemed like it may have been thrown together at the last second to pre-empt Apple’s event. Now we can be positive that it was.

Just look at the tweets about the event today.

Everyone came to the same conclusion because it was the only conclusion to come to. Even the new products that Google did manage to unveil today have vague timelines for launching. And one has actually been out there for some time. They wanted to make sure to note that new 3D technology was coming soon! Can’t imagine why.

Google threw this thing together at the last second and the press could smell it. We all know the adage: “if you don’t have something nice to say, don’t say anything at all.” Google just spawned a more obvious sibling: “if you don’t have something to say, don’t say anything at all.”

What Google actually unveiled today is their own vulnerability in the space. Beyond a few tiny leaks, no one knows what Apple’s mapping product will be like. Google has by far and away the best mapping product on the planet. But they still felt the need to hold this meaningless press conference today. That’s fighting down, not up. And it’s a big mistake because it conveys the opposite of what Google was trying to convey: concern, not confidence.

Even before today’s non-event, I had been thinking more about Apple’s move into mapping. When the news broke, everyone knew it was a big deal, but I actually still think it’s being underplayed. It could be a massive deal.

I say that with the biggest caveat possible: again, no one knows much about the Apple maps product yet — it could very well suck. Mapping is not easy. And Google has been at it for years. Pulling off a product that can reliably replace Google Maps seems almost impossible — it’s that good — and maybe it will prove to be.

But Apple clearly believes they can do it. You might argue that they need to do it, and you’d be right. But they needed to do it a few years ago. They weren’t ready yet. Now they feel that they’re ready. We’ll see soon enough.

And if they can pull it off, it will fundamentally alter not just the mapping landscape, but the entire mobile landscape. Maps are obviously now one of the absolute must-have features on a phone. But beyond the obvious, maps are also woven into the fabric of nearly every mobile app out there these days.

My main question after hearing a tiny bit about Apple’s maps product was if it would be included in the SDK right away for iOS developers to use, replacing Google Maps? It appears it will be. The importance of this cannot be overstated.

Maybe Apple starts forcing developers to use their maps instead of Google’s or maybe they don’t. Or maybe they deprecate Google Maps over time. One thing you can be sure of is that it will be more seamless to implement the Apple maps inside of iOS apps, and so that’s what most developers will end up doing (again, assuming the product is good enough).

Such a move would suddenly push Google Maps from the de-facto standard to simply the market leader in maps. And if Android/iOS run about 50/50 of the market going forward, the map market share could follow suit.

It seems unlikely that Apple would do a web version of their maps, but who knows. Meanwhile, even before all of this iOS maps talk started, Google began doing everything in their power to push away large Maps partners on the web. Regardless, mobile is where maps really matter going forward

For Apple, this matters because they like to be in control of all the technology in their products as well as the end-to-end experience for consumers. But for Google, this matters a lot more because maps are a key part of the mobile monetization strategy. And mobile is increasingly a key part of the overall monetization strategy. If half that market suddenly gets shut off…

That’s undoubtedly why Google felt like they needed to hold their event today. Done in such a hurry, they mangled it, and it made them look sort of silly. But the fact that they felt the need to do something suggests their heads are in the right place (or at least facing the right direction). They know what’s coming and what it might mean.

Make no mistake: the forthcoming mapping wars are a really big deal. There’s a chance Apple won’t get it right and Google can rest easy. But there’s also a chance that the opposite happens and half of Google’s market disappears.

Update: Just to clarify one point, iOS doesn’t actually include a Google Maps SDK, but rather MapKit, which happens to use Google Maps data right now. That can and probably will change with iOS 6. The question remains if Apple will allow apps to continue to integrate Google Maps on their own, and how easy that will be to implement…


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