Mapsgate is Not the End of the Road

Mapsgate is Not the End of the RoadSo the new default Maps app in the first release of iOS 6 is a dud according to most of the world — who am I to argue?

Apple no longer felt that working directly with Google was advantageous to the iOS platform, and as a YouTube content producer, I’m beyond thrilled about Apple dropping the official iOS YouTube app. Its removal will not stop users from going to YouTube. If anything, it’ll give users a better YouTube experience (as well as make sure producers get paid for a substantial amount of mobile platform views).

I also don’t think that the removal of Google as the default maps data provider will deter people from using Google Maps on their iOS device (through Safari or a possibly impending app). Though, as a person who relies on mapping every so often, I’m not very excited about cutesy flyovers if the underlying data validity is in question. That should improve with time, but: (a) how much time will it take for Maps not to suck, (b) will users report issues as they find them, and (c) will this deter people from buying iOS devices? Those are the questions that we cannot answer — lest we stir the pot with further FUD.

But Apple doesn’t owe the world the best device for Google services.

So what could Apple do? Continue to give Google direct access to its customer base? No, it won’t. Renew “the contract” for some unknown amount of months or years at a calculated cost? Not likely. Removing the Maps app as a default? That would spark even more of a controversy. Rely on third-party app developers to fill in the gaps? I think that’s going to be the company’s response.

Apple is not going to capitulate and bring Google back into the default zone. It would likely accept a Google Maps app submission (like it’s accepted a dozen Google app submissions before), but it’s likely to point you to existing options on iOS — free or paid — perhaps even subsidizing a leading GPS / turn-by-turn app to offer as an alternative. With dozens at Apple’s disposal, it’s not quite backed into a corner… yet.

Google makes money from its products (and the product would be you and your attention, not its software, since you don’t pay anything and get to see ads in exchange for usage). Apple makes money from its hardware (it wants to enable a good software experience, though it’s seemingly missed the mark with the first public version of Maps). Why wouldn’t Google want to serve its customers (the advertisers, not you) on any possible platform? More important, why should Apple care?

Well, up until iOS 6, Apple yielded to Google for a good “maps” experience. It’s cut ties and released version 1.0 of its idea of what mapping software could be. Was it a good move? It depends on your perspective. For Apple, it was one less opportunity to fuel its competitor. For Google, it was one less opportunity to get a massive amount of impressions for its customers (the advertisers, not the users). For the user, it happens to be a draw (finally, a turn-by-turn navigation default — skewered by a rather disjointed data set).

Any of y’all remember Google Chrome 1.0? It sucked. Hell, until version 10, I wouldn’t dream of touching or recommending it to anybody. But software evolves and (typically) gets better with time. Today, Google Chrome is my default browser on OS X — even though I can see that Safari certainly renders faster and runs more efficiently. There are always going to be trade-offs. Apple’s made a trade-off by cutting off Google, but hasn’t necessarily left the user in the lurch (as some would have you believe). If Apple had no App Store with a plenitude of mapping or GPS apps, this would be far more dramatic an event.

Just as Android fans are quick to tell you that you can install another keyboard onto your device, you can just as readily use an alternative GPS app on iOS (perhaps not with all the niceties like being able to view turn-by-turn from the lock screen, but it’s far from inconvenient). To get a good keyboard experience on Android, I found myself *paying* for a keyboard app to replace the default, so the idea of having to pay for software that doesn’t come as a default on any platform is far from an outlandish idea.

Perhaps Apple wasn’t ready to release its own Maps, but was forced to do so after its contract with Google expired? We simply do not know. In fact, given how iOS users (not just geeks) have reacted, I’d be inclined to believe that its hand was forced — but why wouldn’t Apple label Maps a beta as it did Siri? Again, we simply do not know.

What’s “right” (once again) is relative. Is it “right” to ship a sub-standard mapping experience? Depends. From Apple’s perspective, it’d continue to yield more value to a competitor. From a user’s perspective, they’re receiving a watered-down version of the mapping experience to which they’ve grown accustomed (from Apple, many not knowing or caring that Google provided the data). Was it right to start somewhere? Yes. Was this the best time to reveal it? No, in the short-term; yes, in the long-term.

Someone (desperately) suggested that Apple should have kept Google Maps side-by-side with the new iOS Maps as a default until iOS Maps worked better. Splitting the user’s attention by offering two options that seemingly do the same thing is a horrendous idea. The same person went on to suggest that Google should ship iOS software to draw more people into an alternative platform, which was also a flawed premise (why would you switch to another platform if your current platform is being serviced by such ample software)?

Will Google ship Maps for iOS? Not having any sources, I’d still say it’s a foregone conclusion; Google has shipped apps for pretty much every one of its leading services (from Search to Drive to Mail). When will that happen? Well, it depends on how quickly Google engineers can whip up something — and how quickly Apple will approve its App Store submission.

For the current default iOS Maps app to improve, Apple will be hoping that users will submit data corrections on a regular basis, and there are enough iOS users out there that it’s possible to improve the database quicker than other companies might have been able to do. And “open” advocates might note that some data is being pulled from OpenStreetMap. I suppose that might put someone who hates Apple in a quandary.

Should you not buy an iOS 6 device because it doesn’t have an amazing mapping experience out-of-the-box? Depends on your priorities. If you already use a third-party iOS GPS app, this is all a non-issue. If you held off on iOS because you were waiting for a Google Maps killer, you’re going to be waiting a while longer. Is Maps the only value in iOS (6 or otherwise)? Hardly. Is the Maps app perfect? Far from it. Will it improve? Yes. Will it be “good enough?” That remains to be seen.

I’m incredibly forgiving with the technology around me; Heaven knows how many times I’ve puzzled over why my car’s new nav system steered me in the wrong direction (up a hill with a road that didn’t exist). That didn’t make me want to pull the unit out of the dash, return the vehicle, and demand my money back. Perhaps I’m too forgiving, I suppose. I certainly do not expect products or services to improve if I do not provide feedback, however. Sometimes, that feedback is silent and I opt to vote with my spending habits. Sometimes, that feedback is direct and I opt to provide guidance to the provider to help it make something a better experience for everybody.

There are always trade-offs (unless you’re the only person to have dissevered a permanent tech solution Utopia). Where do you draw the line? Hey, that’s up to you. Just like Apple had to draw the line… even though it may not be able to tell you where to find that line. Today.

Apple is not infallible (never has been), but I’m guessing it’s willing to take a short-term loss for a long-term gain (especially against Google). Until then, if you’re bothered, use another app? Or there’s always this:

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Chris has consistently expressed his convictions and visions outright, supplying practical information to targeted audiences: media agencies, business owners, technology consumers, software and hardware professionals, et al. He remains a passionate personality in the tech community-at-large. He's a geek.