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Summary:

Apple’s new Maps app has its pros and cons. But it’s also becoming apparent that the normally conservative company has opened itself up to some significant potential risks by taking on the responsibility of creating and maintaining a mapping solution. Here’s a roundup of potential problems.

Scott Forstall demonstrates Flyover, Apple's new 3D maps feature.

Scott Forstall demonstrates Flyover, Apple’s new 3D maps feature that is already drawing privacy critiques from elected officials.

Apple’s decision to develop its own maps app for its mobile devices is in many ways the prototypical Apple move. When a particular piece of software or a technology is critical to the performance or usability of an Apple product, Apple wants to have complete control over it. And that’s very true here: directions, location-based services and mapping are critical tools for iPhone and iPad users as well as the many third-party apps that run on those devices.

Apple hasn’t rushed into this decision — it’s taken years to acquire the relevant companies and sign the appropriate licensing agreements — and it does seem like it was thoughtful about the implementation of this new software. As developers told me last week, they think Apple has made it really easy on them from a coding perspective to switch from Google to Apple’s own maps for their apps.

But as fallout from the announcement of the move continues, it’s apparent that the normally conservative company has opened itself up to some significant potential risks by taking on the responsibility of creating and maintaining a mapping solution. Here’s a roundup of the potential dangers.

Change for change’s sake. Google Maps was not broken. Moving away from it was a change Apple made mostly for competitive reasons. (Unless you consider Google holding back turn-by-turn directions as a feature for its own Android software, which for some was a major hole in iOS functionality.) The problem with changing something that isn’t broken is you need to offer something that’s noticeably better as a replacement. The new look and functionality of the  new maps app will be jarring to some people. People don’t like change and they do like convenience, so if they’re going to be forced to learn something new — even something as simple as a new maps app — it has to be immediately clear that the change was worth it. This is perhaps a small risk, given Apple’s record with software design, but it is a risk nonetheless.

To be fair, Apple does have a history of making far more dramatic and riskier product changes — like making a computer without a floppy drive, or without an optical disc drive altogether. Customers have adapted to these changes — the optical drive-less MacBook Air is one of the Apple’s best-selling laptops now. But those were changes to new products that customers had the choice of buying, not changes to products people already own. And more importantly, the payoff you get for that change — a thinner, lighter computer — is clear and welcome.

iOS Maps’ turn-by-turn directions.

Privacy concerns. The new 3D maps Apple demonstrated with its Flyover feature are visually stunning. But they’re already eliciting concern over how Apple is gathering those images. On Monday New York Senator Charles Schumer sent a letter to Apple and Google — the details of which have been posted on his website — conveying his alarm over the tactics used to capture images for their respective 3D maps products. He says their “plans to use military-grade spy planes to map communities and publish images could cause unprecedented invasion of privacy.” Specifically he’s upset that the cameras can see images in detail “as small as four inches – enough to see through windows in homes, capture individuals in their backyards, and reveal details of sensitive security.” He wants to give property owners the right to opt out of being photographed and has called for blurring out all images of individuals.

This sort of attention from elected officials is pretty much the norm for Google, which has had to deal with concerns in many countries over its Google Street View cameras. Apple has had its share of privacy brouhahas, but the cameras-in-public-places thing hasn’t been part of it. Schumer’s letter is likely just the beginning of privacy concerns over 3D mapping for Apple.

The accuracy of turn-by-turn directions. Speaking of lawsuits, another thing Google’s Maps product has opened it up to over the years is lawsuits over faulty or inaccurate turn-by-turn directions. Legitimate or not — you don’t have to do what Google or Apple’s maps tell you — it’s another legal risk Apple is taking by offering these in its new product. It’s something the company has long known about too — when Apple first added GPS to the iPhone with the iPhone 3G, it warned against using it for turn-by-turn directions because of unnamed “complicated issues.”

The transit apps question. Apple VP of iOS Scott Forstall said very briefly at WWDC last week that Apple’s Maps app will feature different local transit apps when users ask for bus, train, metro or other public transportation directions. At first I liked the idea that Apple was allowing the relevant local transit apps to be featured. But as plenty of others have pointed out since, it appears that these apps will be featured because Apple is unable or unwilling to integrate transit directions within its own app. The risk here is the unknown: iOS 6 is available just as a preview for developers right now, and it’s incomplete, so we don’t know how the final version will work. How smoothly will these third-party apps will be integrated, and will it be an inconvenience for users? That’s the big question.

  1. “The cameras can see images in detail as small as four inches.”

    All Apple needs to do is greatly degrade the resolution in the images they obtain from the military-grade spy planes, and the result will still be quite useful.

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  2. I have mixed feelings about the loss of Google’s transit directions. On the one hand, Google’s directions are very handy. I have other apps that will tell me when a bus or subway car will arrive, but Google’s is the only one that will give me a full transit route to my destination, including changes and time allowance for walking to the stop. On the other hand, dropping Google may introduce an incentive for 3rd parties to improve on what Google’s app did. There is certainly room for improvement. The interface was never good; it took several taps to compare the different transit routes offered. And it wouldn’t provide an answer to a question that I often have: which option is most robust, and will delay me the least if a bus or train is late causing me to miss the projected connection?

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  3. Something I have not seen addressed: Will Google Maps still be available in the app Store for those that want it (in addition to the Apple Maps app built into IOS 6)?

    If not, then there needs to be an awfully good reason to exclude it lest the biggest risk of all – a lawsuit alleging ant-competitive behavior – be introduced. Simply banishing a competitor’s product for no other reason than Apple does not want Google on “their” device at all would appear to be abuse of Monopoly power in the extreme (where the relevant market is IOS devices and the only legal point of entry into that market – which is open to other 3rd party vendors – is the Apple curated App Store).

    Google maps does not need to be there by default but there does need to be a way for Google to make it available again through the app store.

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    1. Apple is not obligated to allow Google apps on Apple’s devices, any more than Google or Amazon are required to have their devices sell iBooks. One’s own product line does not, in and of itself, define a monopoly, requiring some special Federal measures.

      Right now, Google provides turn-by-turn directions to Android, but not iOS, a move clearly done for anti-competitive reasons. To me it seems normal sharp business. Should DOJ go after them?

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      1. I would not be so sure. No question Apple has no obligation to provide Google maps as a default (or even an option Out of the Box). BUT – and it is a huge but – if Apple is opening the device to 3rd party developers generally then they must also provide an opportunity for Google (or Amazon or Barnes & Noble in the case of books) to provide apps as long as the apps don’t otherwise infringe on the App Store guidelines. To block an App maker – especially if that developer is seen as a “competitor” – capriciously is just inviting legal trouble.

        The DOJ should not go after Google for the lack of spoken turn-by-turn directions as there is no obligation for feature parity. Similarly, if Google just decided to drop their Maps App entirely “for competitive reasons” that, too, would be OK. Google does not HAVE to provide apps across platforms if they don’t want to and what they put into their apps is their business. But Apple has set themselves up as the sole gatekeeper for what can be sold in the App store and therefore what can be put onto non-jailbroken IOS devices. They have setup guidelines for developers and if a developer meets those guidelines yet Apple denies them access for no reason other than “we don’t want them here” then that is a potential problem that maybe the DOJ should consider.

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  4. Charles Jenkins Tuesday, June 19, 2012

    For me, the #1 feature of my first iPhone was Google Maps. Being able to search and get directions on the go was an amazing capability. But guess what my favorite news about iOS 6 is? Dumping Google maps. For the past few months, whenever I have searched or asked for directions on my iPhone, Google has directed me to a “sponsored link” site near where I want to go — not my actual destination. I’ll miss Street View, but the most important feature of a Maps app is accuracy. Not advertising.

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    1. Google Maps is still the default Maps of the iPhone.

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      1. Not in iOS 6. It is not installed at all, default or otherwise, in iOS 6.

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  5. Kameliya Vladimirova Tuesday, June 19, 2012

    Location-based services (LBS) have enormous potential and maps are fundamental for that. Apple realizes the huge value of LBS for mobile devices (portable Web connected devices- iPhone, iPad, iPod). Integrating the different capabilities of the mobile device – GPS, Camera, Maps, iMessage, iCloud, GeoFencing, etc. creates huge opportunity for innovative and disruptive services. To name just a few (use your vision for more):
    - Car Navigation
    - Mobile Payments and Loyalty Cards
    - Relevant Product Offers based on Location (Foursquare will become irrelevant).
    - Relevant Product Discovery – Restaurants and all other Local Services. Expect more integration like the one with Yelp.
    - Location-based Chat
    - Other Commercial applications

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  6. Apple’s has always created the Maps app – Google did not create Maps. In the past, they used Google’s data for it. But Google refused to allow Apple access to the turn-by-turn data.

    Now, Apple is not only developing Maps but is now using its own as well as 3rd party map data. This mitigates any risk Apple may have. For turn-by-turn data, Apple uses Tom-Tom’s data. Tom-Top is the expert in GPS Turn-By-Turn data. Apple is also using Open Map data. And it is using other 3rd party data in a partnership. This way, Apple does not have to be the expert in all that is mapping. It is allowing Maps to be open to other developers to use.

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    1. Turn by turn directions are not data. That’s like saying WordPerfect vs. Word is just data.

      Google Navigation is the killer app for Android because Google implemented the program so well. Rather obviously they weren’t going to develop Google Navigation for Apple, and rather obviously Apple was going to want to have their own product. That Apple would do that now should hardly be a surprise for Google.

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    2. That was always my understanding as well that Google just supplied the data and the actual App was an Apple creation. I think Apple’s new map solution should open up opportunities to innovate on top of this data and allow app developers to come up with solutions that will improve the map experience. It may take a year to get there, but you can bet it will get there quick.

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  7. For me it is not so much the “prettiness” of the app, but more the accuracy and completeness of the data. Till such a time as it can be confirmed (not via Apple) I’ll stick to Google. It is a known and well working design.

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  8. Losing local transit information is a big pain.

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  9. Apple’s maps doesn’t show any human beings as far as I can tell. I have yet to see a single life form, human or animal in Apple’s map in iOS 6 beta..

    Here’s Apple’s response: “We do not display any personally identifiable details such as faces or license plates. Additionally, we create optimized pictures taken from multiple shots and remove moving objects such as cars and people from the final image,” Apple spokeswoman Kristin Huguet told FoxNews.com.

    http://www.foxnews.com/scitech/2012/06/18/google-ogles-sen-schumer-fears-highly-detailed-spy-plane-maps/

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  10. Ah, come on Erica, don’t mean to complain as I like most of what GigaOm writes, but this is kind of a weak article about risk analysis of maps. Good points though that its not something which happens overnight. You might have added to the article by noting where Google started years ago with the acquisition of Keyhole and so on.

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