Wrong Turn


apple-maps-bridge

I tend not to wade into the whole “Apple Screwed Up Maps” thing. For one thing, I don’t have a dog in this fight. Yes, I indirectly helped Google (before Keyhole became Google Earth). And I more directly helped Microsoft in ways we can’t get into. I do have friends in most of these companies, but they know me well enough to know that I speak my mind or not at all.

Mostly, I really just want maps to work well everywhere, and that’s best served by healthy competition, great (free and open) data, and really good crowd-sourcing for keeping things accurate and fresh.

If anything, what I’m most disappointed by is that Apple had the golden opportunity to crowd-source their map data. If something was wrong somewhere on the globe, it could be fixed in 20 seconds by a dedicated user. Everyone else would see an improved result, well before reporters started harping on it.

Alas, they ditched Google’s mostly automated Ground Truth. They barely used Open Street Map, and not where (and how) it counted. Waze, as well, would have been a great ally to improve their  ground truth and real-time updates.

But here’s the real insight worth considering: try running Google’s “new” iOS maps app and then run Google Earth on the same device, switching back and forth for the same areas.

Tell me if you can spot the differences.

  1. Google Maps on iOS has turn by turn directions. GEarth has this on other platforms, in the form of similar animated tours.
  2. Google Maps on iOS has traffic info — but this can be added to Google Earth too as a layer.
  3. Google Maps on IOS apparently uses  the same web services that their web maps do for directions, navigation, etc..
  4. The icons are slightly different, but the road label rendering looks the same.
  5. Map rendering and manipulation are virtually identical.

What I take from this is that the team may have used engine code from Google Earth to power their new maps app, stripping out some features but keeping others. I’m guessing they spent the last few months adding dedicated UX specific to the more targeted use case — directions, traffic, turn-by-turn, etc..

If true, that’s exactly the kind of convergence I’d hoped to see when Google bought Keyhole.

But what’s most remarkable about that is that Google Earth never left iOS. It was there throughout the whole “Apple booted Google” fiasco. All it was missing were some UI tweaks and the above features, which I figure were left out of the iOS version initially because of  ’locked-up’ features like “turn by turn.” So in a sense, Google fixed that and now re-released it under the name “Maps.”

Of course, the Google Maps browser version was also available the whole time. But people like the native “Maps” app entry point, it seems.

If true, this means that in a next update or two, Google can add 3D buildings to the iOS Maps app with relative ease to compete handily with Apple’s acquired C3 technologies 3D buildings. Oops.

But does Google really want their iOS Maps app to be so great?

That’s a harder question to suss out, and I bet it depends who at Google you ask. I have no doubt that Android sales improved this Christmas due to Apple’s map problems. People just can’t risk having their maps suck, even if only 0.05% of users had problems. But I expect the Google Geo team just wants to be the best possible solution everywhere.

So what we have now is a Google Maps app that could totally rock anything Apple does on their own platform, and more on Google’s own terms. At some point, “people” can even force Apple to make the default maps provider user-selectable, so geospatial links will open whichever app is so registered.

I mean, this is basically what happened to Microsoft with IE bundling, right? Just a matter of time, given ‘reality’ is creeping back in. That is, no doubt, what Apple was afraid of — losing control of a differentiating feature on their own devices — and rightly so. But they seem to have played their hand rather poorly and that’s the inevitable result.

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