At the TechCrunch Disrupt conference in New York last week, Google VP of Location and Local Services Marissa Mayer fielded some questions about the widespread popularity of its mapping app, specifically what might happen if Apple rolled out its own map app and booted Google Maps in favor of its own product on iPhones and iPod Touches.
The rumor has been floating around for a couple of years now as Apple has made some small acquisitions of mapping technology companies in the past. But it was the recent revelation that iPhones have been building a secret database of the device's whereabouts that has sparked the speculation mill again.
Mayer smartly dodged the "what if" question. After all, why would she want to respond to something that hasn't happened yet? Still, the buzz got me thinking about what a bad move it would be for Apple to try to go up against Google in Maps. From the Apple standpoint, it goes against the model - which is, for the most part, to develop software that helps sell its hardware. A Maps offering doesn't help Apple directly sell more iPhones, iPads or Macs.
But the better reason is because Google has raised the bar to a level where any other mapping product that hits the market will have to invest in building something that's more than just a map and more like a map platform. It would be a rough road - and a silly one to venture on for Apple - seeing how Google has raised the bar so high.
Here are five ways that Google rises above the others and should cause newcomers to the mapping game to think twice:
1. Street View: It's gotten Google into some hot water over privacy (and WiFi tapping) issues but you have to admit that the ability to virtually be transplanted into a location and see what it looks like via Street View is pretty cool technology.
2. Google Earth: The integration of a technology that allows users to "fly" from one location to another and the addition of 3D technology, to provide some real-life depth to buildings and other structures.
3. Business listings: About a year or so ago, I attended a free Google workshop that was targeted at small business owners interested in learning more about how to promote their businesses online. At the time, the company was pushing detailed business listings, a feature that allowed a business owner to advertise things such as hours of operation, credit cards accepted and more. Now, those listings - managed and maintained by business owners - are a key piece of the results within Google Maps, both the browser-based and mobile app versions.
4. Mobile search: When you're in a strange town, the better search bar isn't the one in your phone's browser but rather the one on Google maps. From within in, you can find the closest gas station, ATM or pizza joint. Sure, you can get directions but any mapping app will do that but Google's mobile map also lets you add layers to your mobile experience, such as terrain conditions, real-time traffic or Wikipedia entries about locations.
5. Android's growth: Even if Apple were to pull the plug on Google Maps for the iPhone in favor of its own mapping product, there's still a strong install base with Android phones, which have been quite the thorn in Apple's mobile side. Sure, losing all of those iPhones would be tough on Google but it wouldn't be the end of the world.
Google already has plenty of competition when it comes to mapping - and, at this point in the game, Microsoft's Bing is the best contender, offering many of the same mapping tools and features. But for the overall experience, Google remains at the top of the list.
If Apple wants to go head-to-head with Google on location-based services, that makes more sense. But Apple certainly doesn't need to kill itself trying to build a mapping product that will rival Google's. It would just be a wasted effort.