Mobility

Why Apple is failing to upend Google in the battle for mobile map dominance

Google Maps keeps changing as it introduces new data into its product. Apple Maps, however, is falling behind in providing a competitive experience.

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Google has spent decades indexing the internet so that it can make billions of dollars advertising against our desire to find things online. Since 2005, Google has also aggressively "indexed" our physical world, effectively taking our offline world and bringing it online. Despite the enormity of the stakes, Google has been left largely alone to its location ambitions.

This is excusable for most—it's incredibly expensive to get location right—but it's beyond bizarre that Apple has been somewhat passive in this area, as an analysis by cartographer Justin O'Beirne illustrates.

Location, location, location

Mobile devices have dramatically changed what matters most in computing. While marketers have long tried to pry into our browsing history in order to present appealing offers, mobile devices offer insight into who we are (based on where we go), as well as the ability to reach out to us at the precise moment when we're most likely to respond favorably.

Given Google's multi-billion dollar advertising business, it makes sense that the company would, in turn, spend billions to ensure its ability to capitalize on this mobile location shift. Apple's business is very different—it has largely eschewed privacy-invading advertising—but its need for maps and the underlying location data is not. To deliver the best possible mobile experiences, Apple needs deep location data.

SEE: Apple to use drones for Apple Maps data collection (ZDNet)

Though Apple's initial foray into maps was roundly criticized, over time it improved the service, causing many (including me) to think it would catch up with Google. Judging by its lack of progress in the past year, however, it would seem that Apple is ceding the location battle to Google.

What have you done for me lately?

This, at least, is what O'Beirne's analysis suggests. As he summarized, "It's cool to see how much Google Maps has changed over the past year. But it's also surprising to see how little Apple Maps has changed." This could stem from Apple's dependence on TomTom for its mapping data, but even that doesn't excuse the company from under-investing so heavily in such determinative data.

Over the past year, Google has added ever-richer detail to its maps while Apple...has not. Is this TomTom's fault? No. The blame goes to the product owner, not the tools it chooses to use. As O'Beirne noted, "Google's location data is more precise than Apple's." Maybe Apple's new plans to enlist drones to capture data will improve, but in the meantime the company is falling behind.

SEE: Apple's remarkable China success lost in earnings translation (TechRepublic)

Beyond data, O'Beirne noted that Google has also introduced the capacity to arrange and display its data in ever-more intuitive ways:

Similar to how a software engineer refactors their code before expanding it, Google has repeatedly refactored the styling of its map as it has added new datasets. And we see this in the evolution of Google Maps's cartography. As Google has added more and more datasets, it has continually rebalanced the colors, weights, and intensities of the items already on its map - each time increasing its map's capacity for more.

That refactoring has introduced a major change at Google Maps, one that Apple has failed to follow: "Over the course of a year, Google quietly turned its map inside-out - transforming it from a road map into a place map. A year ago, the roads were the most prominent part of the map - the thing you noticed first. Now, the places are," O'Beirne said.

Google, in other words, turned the physical world into less a matter of getting from here to there, though this remains important, and more a matter of what is there. This plays into Google's advertising business, but also its attempts to corral the world's information. Apple could use the same data to enrich its customer experience but instead is allowing Google to do this. That's a big miss.

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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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