Mobility

Microsoft's map sale to Uber sends all the wrong mobile messages

Microsoft says it wants to focus, but what could be more important than location data?

Microsoft mobile

Microsoft just got out of the mapping business. Does that prefigure a departure from mobile?

Andreesen Horowitz's Benedict Evans speculates that it's "[d]ifficult to understand why Microsoft would want to be absent from maps in the long term." But he's wrong. It's not difficult to understand.

It's completely baffling.

Mobile makes location data critically important, but it's not just mobile. Even on the desktop, our location data will become a battleground for platform vendors going forward, and Microsoft seems to be shouting "Surrender!" when it should be doubling down on location.

Microsoft exits location?

As first reported by TechCrunch, Microsoft is offloading some of its Bing image collection assets to Uber, along with 100 engineers focused on the tech. Microsoft characterizes this as a way to further focus the company.

And it will. But perhaps not in the right way.

Some seem to grasp the impact of what this could mean for Microsoft. Rumors are already swirling that Microsoft plans to ditch Windows Phone. These rumors are fed by Microsoft's rumored decision to allow iOS and Android apps to run on Windows Phone, something TechRepublic has covered previously.

In discussing the Uber deal, Uber's Kristin Carvell declared, "Mapping is at the heart of what makes Uber great." Microsoft, for its part, suggested, "we will no longer collect mapping imagery ourselves and instead will continue to partner with premium content and imagery providers for underlying data while concentrating our resources on the core user experience."

But in a world gone mobile, partnering for data is a losing strategy. You must own it.

The battle for location data

Granted, mapping technology isn't the only location data available. But if I'm betting on platforms for the future, Uber's mentality strikes me as the winning one.

This isn't about Microsoft having a shot at making Windows Phone viable. Rather, it's about ensuring the company has competitive data in perhaps the critical market going forward. It's much more than being able to efficiently route a person from point A to point B. It's about understanding who that person is based on where she wants to go (or has been) and being able to engage her at precisely the right moment, based on her current (and expected) location.

This is what Google does so phenomenally well with Google Now. But not just for Android users: on Saturday, I went to Google Maps to see how long it would take for me to drive from the Oregon coast to Portland, and Google suggested a departure time based on my flight later that day. I hadn't asked Google to do this. I had simply received a receipt from Delta in my Gmail account, and Google remembered and used that information to help me plan my return trip.

Creepy to some. Invaluable to me.

But by starting to sell off its location data, and trying to partner its way to data relevance, Microsoft may be cutting itself off from the future. Yes, the company needs to focus, but it's hard to see how focusing itself away from one of the most critical data sources going forward can be a good thing.

Maybe Microsoft considers this particular tech as inessential to its ability to provide rich location-based services. And maybe it's right.

But the further Microsoft gets from deep location expertise and data, the more it seals itself off from the future of mobile and desktop.

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About Matt Asay

Matt Asay is a veteran technology columnist who has written for CNET, ReadWrite, and other tech media. Asay has also held a variety of executive roles with leading mobile and big data software companies.

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