Apple iOS 6 map flap gives Google geolocation advantage

Summary:The most recent iOS 6 update has exposed a critical weakness in Apple's armor for their mobile devices, and that's mapping and geolocation services.

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September 19, 2012. A day that will live in infamy. It was the day that everyone who owned an Apple iOS device and who wanted to upgrade to the latest version of the mobile operating system hit the "Upgrade" button, and found out after their next reboot that their devices were de-Googlefied.

The Google Maps software that provided integrated geolocation services and has so prominently been featured in Apple commercials since 2007 for showing "There's an App for that" in multitudes of 3rd-party apps that make extensive use of Google's Maps was replaced with Apple's own Maps product.

This wouldn't have been an issue if Apple's own mapping and geolocation services were anywhere near as extensive as Google's. But they aren't.

The Internet is now littered with oodles of horror stories of how business, government and major infrastructure listings and map placements are inaccurate and that the built-in navigation in iOS 6 is woefully inadequate.

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To make matters worse, the new 3D features of Apple's Maps software frequently displays Persistence of Memory-esque distortions of highways and well-known urban structures in surrealist form that would make Salvador Dali proud, as shown in my own iPad 3 above.

There's no question that the Apple maps software in iOS 6 needs a ton of improvement and devalues a lot what people loved about their iDevices. The question is, what can Apple do about it?

Clearly, Apple designed their own mapping software in order to distance themselves from Google, because they are now fierce competitors in the mobile operating system market.

But it may have jumped the gun on wanting to rip those Google Maps software infrastructure components out of iOS and terminate their partnership with the search giant, knowing full well how pervasive the software was with the iOS user and app developer community.

Given the harsh feedback that iOS 6 Maps has received, I believe that Apple will (eventually) have to begrudgingly allow Google to submit their Google Maps software as a separate app, much like as it has done with Chrome, Google Voice, Google Plus and now its YouTube app, which has also been de-coupled from the popular mobile OS.

But going beyond letting Google Maps back as an App, and allowing 3rd-party apps to integrate with Google Maps through the iOS MapKit API or alternatively Google's native API set (which Apple may block) Cupertino needs to think about investing in geolocation services and improving its own mapping software and getting it done quickly, particularly if it really wants their users to have true independence from Google's competitive services anytime soon.

Google of course has put a tremendous amount of money in their geolocation and Internet-based map service efforts. Since launching Google Maps in 2005, the company has sent out a fleet of cars to photograph every street in 39 countries covering 5 million miles of road in 3,000 cities all over the world for their Street View feature.

And for all the foodies, Google also bought ZAGAT in September of 2011, and integrated their restaurant ratings into their Google Places and Maps applications in the early summer of 2012.

The company also recently purchased the Frommers business from John Wiley, a well known publisher of travel guides.

Google has also invested significant resoruces in the GeoEye-1 satellite (launched in 2008) of which they have preferred access to for taking half-meter resolution photos for use as overlays on Google Maps as well as Google Earth.

I had somewhat half-jokingly suggested back in October of 2010 when Apple's cash assets reached $50 billion that they might want to consider buying or investing in a major space imaging company like GeoEye, so that Google wasn't the only kid in Silicon Valley with its own satellite to play with.

When they reached $90 billion in cash assets, I said it again. And that time I wasn't joking.

Any way you look at this, Apple is going to have to spend a lot of money to solve this problem. In the interim this may very well mean swallowing some pride and letting Google give Apple's customers the services they are used to enjoying.

In the long term, it means catching up to 8 to 10 years worth of geolocation services development and leadership by Google, and that could involve a crash program of investing in gelocation and geospatial assets, such as GeoEye I mentioned above.

GeoEye, by the way, is currently capitalized at about $629M and is due to launch GeoEye-2 in early 2013, which like GeoEye-1, is going to have the capability to provide imagery to commercial customers at 20" resolution (50.8 cm/.5 meters) and for the government (and its allies, presumably) at 34 cm.

This would be an excellent opportunity for Apple to gain a share of, if not purchase the entire geospatial company outright.

Other assets that Apple might want to consider adding to its portfolio are cartographic firms such as ESRI, DigitalGlobe, MDA Information Systems and GPS navigation software vendors such as Tomtom and Garmin/Navigon, even if it means having to scrap or divest their respective (and dying) hardware businesses in the process.

And should NOKIA fail to successfully market its line of Windows 8 phones next year, Apple might want to consider giving the Finnish company an offer it cannot refuse on its own valuable cartography and geolocation assets, such as Chicago-based NAVTEQ, a leading GIS, vehicle traffic and GPS mapping data supplier that they acquired in 2007.

Does Apple need to go on a spending spree to match Google Maps and the company's geolocation superiority? Talk Back and Let Me Know.  

Topics: Apple, Google, iOS, iPad, iPhone, Mobile OS

About

Jason Perlow, Sr. Technology Editor at ZDNet is a technologist with over two decades of experience with integrating large heterogeneous multi-vendor computing environments in Fortune 500 companies. Jason is currently a Partner Technology Strategist with Microsoft Corp. His expressed views do not necessarily represent those of his employer... Full Bio

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