Apple seemed ready to take the next step forward in dominating the mobile space last week with its triumphant release of iOS 6. The new OS included the replacement of Google Maps with its own Maps app. But something was very, very wrong. Berlin was in the South Pole, a city in South Carolina (Columbia) was confused with a city in Colombia (Santiago De Cali), bridges seemed to disappear mid-span, and railway stations that had been closed for more than a century surprisingly re-appeared. Mobile competitors jumped at the opportunity to poke fun at Apple and highlight their own map offerings, with Google’s Motorola Mobility going so far as to create a special hashtag (#iLost) for people to spread the world about Apple Maps’ mishaps. There’s even a Tumblr documenting the most egregious of the Maps inaccuracies.
And it’s not just that Apple’s maps are inferior to Google’s maps; it’s that Apple’s maps are also inferior to just about everybody else’s. For example, the once-mighty Nokia, which saw its fortunes plummet with the introduction of the iPhone, has invested significant time and money in Navteq for state-of-the-art mapping capabilities. Here’s the result: Nokia’s maps work offline (Apple’s don’t), Nokia offers turn-by-turn navigation in 110 countries (Apple, only in 56), and Nokia offers public transportation information (Apple doesn’t). Over the weekend, tech enthusiasts even started to jailbreak the new iPhone 5 and showing off how to access the old Google Maps.
So it’s no surprise that Apple is pulling out all the stops to map a better future. To do so, TechCrunch’s Darrell Etherington reported Sunday that, according to “a source with connections on both teams,” Apple is seeking to recruit ex-Google Maps staff. Apple has also put out a new hiring call to fulfill the company’s initial promise of delivering the world’s best mobile maps.
And here’s where it gets interesting.
When we got our first sneak peak at Apple Maps earlier in the summer, the plan was for Apple to blow Google out of the water when it came to cartographic innovation. Whereas Google pioneered Street View and satellite imagery for maps, Apple was launching out-of-the-box interactive 3D features and a Flyover Mode that would recreate the joy and excitement of flight as you cruise overhead. At the same time, Apple was partnering with companies like Yelp to use your geolocation to bring real-time, contextual information to your iPhone.
But, given all of this innovation around them, do maps really matter? Or is this Apple Maps v. Google Maps compare-and-contrast merely a bit of inside baseball for technology enthusiasts? The Web — mobile and desktop — has evolved, placing a new premium on geolocation. In fact, just as the algorithm for finding information on the Web became the key to Google’s search dominance, the precision and functionality of maps will be the key to mobile dominance.
And, in this regard, at least, Apple is trying, but it’s still playing catch-up.
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