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Google Maps Coming (Back) to iOS

December 13th, 2012 - 1:25 pm

A couple months ago, iOS 6 users lost Google’s wonderful Maps app, when Apple switched to its own homegrown solution. Te results were… not so good. Apple’s app is fine — excellent, even. But the data can be real crap, just like Google’s was when the debuted it all those years ago.

These things take time, and iOS users aren’t all that patient. To Apple’s credit, they’ve sacked those responsible and begun a crash program to fix what’s wrong.

So why did Apple ever give Google the boot in the first place?

In a word: Features.

Google refused to update its iOS Maps with things that people have come to expect, like turn-by-turn navigation. Siri integration wasn’t happening, either. Google was hoping, it seems, to drive iPhone users onto the Android platform by offering a much-better-than-iOS maps app.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but you can understand Apple’s rush to give users something better. Sure, maybe there was some Apple hubris involved, too — except maybe for the maybe part. But the fact remains that Apple remained at a competitive disadvantage on maps, as long as Google was in the driver’s seat.

Now here we are, just three months later, and Google has introduced a new Maps app for iPhone, with an iPad version to follow soon. Google’s new app features turn-by-turn and everything else they’d long denied to iOS users. By the few reports I’ve seen, it’s a better app than Apple’s, and it’s sure damn sure going to work better.

Two questions:

Why did Google do it?

Why did Apple approve it?

Let’s tackle the second question first.

Apple didn’t need to approve the new Google Maps for download in the App Store. Yet they did, even though it’s a better product than their own — and will generate revenue directly for Google, and not for Apple. The answer is easy: Apple is devoted to providing the best user experience possible. (Whether or not they always achieve it is subject to debate; their dedication to it is not.) When the scale of the iOS Maps app become obvious, Apple created an entirely new section of the App Store devoted just to third-party maps, and then promoted the heck out of it at their own expense. That’s a pretty massive mea culpa. To Apple, Google’s new app is just another third-party app.

But why did Google do it? Why, after years of foot-dragging on providing iOS users with a better app, did they suddenly and rapidly conjure one up? Two words: Revenue and data. Google earns its keep pushing targeted ads at your eyeballs, and it needs your search data to do it. Not having a Map app cut them off from hundreds of millions of search-hungry iOS users. If getting them back means providing a better app than Google provides for its own Android customers, that’s just business.

See, so long as Google was the default map option for iOS, Google held the strings. It seems almost paradoxical, but Apple doing their own app in-house fostered more competition for users’ eyeballs, not less.

All of this goes to the wisdom of Google ever getting into the mobile OS business in the first place. Android has been an expensive proposition for them. Google had to spend all the money developing (and continuing to develop) Android. Then they give it away for free. And then spent $12 billion buying Motorola to defend it. Then they went and got themselves kicked off of the most valuable mobile platform (iOS) in yet another attempt to defend Android. It’s been a huge money-loser for Google — so far.

Can they earn some of that money back? I dunno, but after I get a chance to put the new Google Maps through its paces, maybe I’ll have an answer to that one.

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