Why maps matter to Apple, Google and others

Although Apple's iPhone 5 has been well-received by critics, its iOS 6 software has drawn lots of complaints over the new Maps app, which drops Google's database and uses a patchwork of mapping sources instead. So far, this has proven unreliable for many users.

If you've run into any trouble with Maps in iOS 6, you may wonder why Apple wanted to get rid of Google's mapping data in the first place. Apple's long-brewing rivalry with Google may be part of the answer, but it's not the whole story. (After all, if Apple really wanted to stick it to the search giant, it could just swap Google for Bing as the default iPhone search engine.)

The real reason is all about control over the data, and Apple isn't the only one considering this. Microsoft recently cut a deal to bring Nokia's mapping data to all Windows Phone 8 devices, and in 2010, Google strong-armed Motorola into using Google location data instead of partnering with a competitor, Skyhook. Apple, like other operating system developers, sees the value in knowing where users are going.

“Maps are strategic [intellectual property] because they capture consumers' intent of where they want to go, so there's the opportunity to intervene and shape consumers' path,” Sarah Rotman Epps, an analyst for Forrester Research, said in an e-mail.

Epps explained that when an operating system knows where the user is located, it can show or not show certain content, suggest places to go, and serve relevant ads or coupons. “Apple doesn't want Google to have that data on its users, and doesn't want to give Google the opportunity to serve location-based guidance,” Epps said.

iphone, maps
Apple's iPhone 5 with maps

Apple said that it does not track users' locations, meaning that the company doesn't collect specific device information associated with a user. However, Apple already uses location information to offer services at the OS level. For instance, Siri can give reminders when the user is just getting home or leaving work, and the new Passbook app can bring up boarding pass information when the user gets to the airport.

Controlling map data isn't just about opening up new sources of revenue, but about locking in users, said Ryan Peterson, a director of product management for Telenav, maker of the third-party Scout app for iPhone and Android. (Incidentally, Scout is now offering a year of its own premium navigation service for free to frustrated iPhone users.)

“Maps are one of the most popular features on the mobile phone,” Peterson said in an e-mail. “OS makers are trying to use their mapping apps as a sticky feature that keeps consumers coming back to their own mapping service.”

The problem, Epps said, is that building a complete mapping service isn't easy, and both Nokia and Google have spent years working on their own services. (Apple bought several mapping companies beginning in 2009, so this feature has been the works for at least three years, but this is the first time the general public has been exposed to it.)

“Apple can't catch up overnight, and it seems like Apple was premature in pulling the plug on Google Maps—it has produced a consumer backlash, at least among early adopters,” Epps said.

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