With 3D maps, Google looks to 'magic' to fend off Apple

Don't let the three-dimensional eye candy fool you. Underneath the flashy maps, it's all about business. And business is your data.
Written by Andrew Nusca, Contributor
I may be a member of the press, but I really do try to avoid pitting companies against each other unnecessarily.

Sure, conflict sells clicks, but the truth is that tech companies are as collaborative as they are competitive -- hopefully by reading ZDNet's ongoing coverage you've been able to tease that out.

No matter. When Google announced yesterday that it would add full three-dimensional capabilities to its Earth service, present on both Google Android-based smartphones as well as Apple's iOS devices, it was just too difficult to find any other reason but Apple driving the folks in Mountain View.

Make no mistake; Google wants its mobile mapping services to get better, with or without its California rival to the south. And it took years for this tech to come about. But the timing was just too suspect.


First, the facts: Google says it deployed a fleet of small, camera-equipped airplanes to fly above several cities and snap aerial photographs, after which the images would be processed through an algorithm to create from them a three-dimensional world.

Reuters reports:

By the end of the year, Google said it expects to have 3D map coverage for metropolitan areas with a combined population of 300 million people. The first 3D cityscape will be available within weeks.

It's much like the company's work years ago with its "Street View" feature for its Maps service, which involved fleets of camera-equipped vans driving many thousands of miles to photograph streets in the world's biggest cities.

At the time, the technology was controversial; that kind of documentation had never before been done before on such a large scale. It was legal, but it gave many private citizens pause.

This time, the controversy is more about the company's underlying motivation. Street View was a landmark step in mapping tech, and gave average consumers a killer feature; three-dimensional Earth is either expensive eye candy (sure, a 3D Eiffel Tower is nice, but...) or an upgrade for the many professionals -- scientists, architects -- who like Earth for its geospatial potential.

To be clear, Earth is not Maps, and so the poke at Apple is not as direct as it first appears. But the company wants to show it has mojo, even if the world's most popular tech company has threatened to turn its back on it and build its own service.


Google says its new maps will be available on all platforms, particularly mobile and including Apple's iOS. But let's get real -- "available" does not mean "native."

Take Apple's existing Maps app on iOS: it's currently powered by Google, but it's not the same experience as using Google Maps in your browser. If you look up a barber, for example, Apple's Google-powered Maps will tell you where it is, its phone number, website address and offer directions to it.

But if you use Google Maps through a web browser, as Google hopes, you also get -- aside from a slightly different interface -- the hours in which the barber is open for business, reviews of the business from elsewhere on the web and a list of related places.

Apple could argue that this is too much information that complicates the experience, sure. But when I'm looking for a barber -- as I was earlier this week -- I really do want to know if I'm visiting a butcher or an artist. But that would mean leaning on Google even more.

So don't let Google or Apple's new flashy maps fool you. Beneath the interface of each is a very real business strategy around you -- and your data.

Whether desktop or mobile, advertisements or software, Google (and Facebook and Yahoo and...) have always played in one true game: your data. That's all that matters. In the digital world, the best way to ensure that your data stays relevant (and lucrative) is to solve enough of your problems to keep you in the walled garden. There's nothing wrong with or deceptive about that; that's what you, the consumer, give in exchange for all of these free, wonderful services. (Or in Apple and Microsoft's case, software and hardware.) We call it a "walled garden" because it's delightful on the inside.

Maps is just one corner of the garden; one brick in that wall. For the longest time, Apple relied (and paid for) Google's service because its rival did the grunt work in establishing it, and it was much easier to pay Google during the iPhone's earliest days than try building it out as it was building out, well, everything else.

But then the iPhone became iOS, and it changed the world. And then Google released Android, and continued to nibble on Apple's heels. As Apple continued to weed out parts of its most popular device that weren't under its corporate roof -- acquiring semiconductor assets removed that dependency; acquiring Lala gave it a (poor) hedge against streaming music services like Pandora; et cetera -- it became increasingly clear that Maps was only a matter of time. It couldn't possibly continue to rely on Google as that company was aggressively moving to eat its lunch -- neither strategically nor financially.

Apple can't just replace Maps without justification; it's too core to the operating system. Whatever it introduces must be marketed as superior in some way to justify the change. So while the company toils away to build some killer feature on which to hang an advertising campaign, Google will press forward in building out its services so that it can be the superior native offering -- after all, whatever it creates will unquestionably be incorporated into Android.

It is the spite of a corporate divorcee: living well is the best revenge.


I fully expect Google and Apple to continue moving in different, though largely parallel, directions. It's necessary for each company to carve a different path for itself, if only to differentiate its product in the market. That means both need to take steps to move away from the service they share today. (To wit: Google's additional announcement that its Maps would be available offline...on Android.) Both need some reason to justify to consumers why they're moving on.

See? Told you it was like a divorce.

But it's not about Maps, or Earth, or any particular service -- it's ultimately about the platform. (Our own Jason O'Grady agrees.) The big lesson here is that neither company will be able to truly, successfully compete against the other before they undo what ties they still share. Otherwise, they're only hurting themselves.

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