The Real Reason why Apple Dropped Google Maps

on September 28, 2012

I have been fascinated with all the bluster and vitriol thrown at Apple since they tossed Google Maps in favor of their own Map app without these detractors trying to get to the bottom of why Apple made this move.

If you have followed Apple for a long time like I have, you know that Apple does not make rash decisions and in fact, all of their decisions are rooted in sound business reasons with an ultimate goal in mind. That is the case with the new iPhone Maps. Contrary to many peoples thinking, the move was not to punish Google in any way. Rather, the decision was a very pragmatic one that in the end will be good for Apple and really good for their customers.

One key reason for Apple dumping Google Maps is that Apple wanted turn-by-turn directions and for obvious reasons, Google did not want to license this feature to Apple because it gave them a competitive advantage over Apple. When it comes to iOS Map apps, turn-by-turn directions were at the top of the list of requests by Apple customers. We can debate Apple’s timing, how the transition was handled, etc., but my stance is that strategically this move is necessary for the future of iOS. Interestingly, Apple released a press release this morning re-inforcing their commitment to Maps and apologizing for what many are calling mis-steps. If it wasn’t clear before, this mornings release clearly stated that Apple’s goal is to ultimately provide the best user experience to their customers and they feel that can only happen if they design and control the future of their mapping software and that required a re-build from the ground up.

However there is an even more important reason Apple took this action. In a column I did for TIME earlier this year, I wrote a piece entitled “Why Google and Microsoft Fear Siri.” In it, I explained that at the heart of Siri lies a rich database of content that Siri can draw from to give users the answers to the questions they ask. However, when Apple introduced it they never even uttered the word “database” in explaining how it works. What they did say is that Siri was in its early stages of learning and over time, as people use Siri, it would get smarter. It was almost positioned as a beta release.

But this is consumer speak for the fact that Siri is based on a database of initial content and as it learns about what info people want, it adds it to its data base to make it smarter or more accurate. If you have tried Siri in the newest version of iOS, you know that indeed, Siri is smarter this time around. And as it continues to build its database as it learns what questions people ask, it will become better and even more accurate.

As I point out in the piece for TIME, what Siri is and will continue to become, is a voice front end to a very rich search engine that gets more accurate and useful as it adds info or content to its database. With that in mind, I suggested that Google and Microsoft, who’s search engines dominate the market today, could eventually be threatened by Apple if Siri gets smarter and develops a rich user contributed database that is really a search engine for at least 60,000 Siri capable iOS devices on the market today.

Over the years, we at Creative Strategies have done at least four major projects for companies with navigation software. As we dug into these projects, it became pretty clear that the navigation databases they use are at the heart of their real usefulness. However, getting the info for a mapping database is very difficult. While these companies do field work to add content to their maps as much as possible, their software only gets better when their users gave them feedback and helped them add more accurate data to their mapping database.

Google has done a great job of creating a rich database of mapping data, but like these other navigation companies, counted on users to feed them even more accurate data that continues to fine-tune Google maps’ accuracy. But what Apple understood a couple of years back is that Apple has delivered at least 70 million iOS users to Google who were feeding them map data and literally giving their competitor the ability to have a major edge on them especially with Android based smartphones.

As you can imagine, that did not make Steve Jobs, when he was still with us, very happy. So for solid business reasons and with a pragmatic approach to this problem, Apple made the important decision to create their own map app and with their users help, fine-tune their own database of Map data over time. TeleNav gave Apple the underlying Map database and Apple has been adding its own information to it for at least a year. More importantly, from this point on, Apple now owns their own custom mapping database and their customers will continue to help it become more accurate. This way it keeps Apple’s customers away from giving Google any more valuable data for their maps.

At the iPhone launch, Apple probably should have stated, as they did with Siri, that this new map app is a work in progress and more like a beta. That would have at least tempered the criticism to a point. But by praising it and then people finding a lot of inaccuracies, it comes off as a wounded product instead of what it really is; a mapping database that will become more accurate over time.

Interestingly, Google has said that they may not do an iOS version of Google Maps. But that is like shooting themselves in the foot. In fact, if they are smart, they rush an iOS Google Maps app to market quickly so that they can try and keep iOS users from using Apple’s Map app given its accuracy issues. If I were a betting man, I would put money on the fact that Google is not willing to give up the feedback they get from 70 million iOS customers that helps build their mapping database and we could see a Google apps map for iOS within the next 2 months.

Apple’s decision to jettison Google Maps was not an emotional one. Indeed, the decision was done to make sure they owned their customers data and did not give Google any help with Android. And as iOS users give Apple feedback on map data and accuracy, a very rich mapping database will emerge that could be even better than what Google offers today.

If you have time read Ben’s take on the Future of Apple’s Maps.