Google Maps searching for directions ahead of WWDC

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Had Google introduced something that really changed the mobile mapping landscape Wednesday during an event in San Francisco, you could believe it was an event they had planned for quite some time. Instead, by introducing some nice but incremental improvements to Google Maps for Android and Google Earth days before Apple is expected to introduce its own iOS mapping software, Google accomplished little other than forcing the company to dodge questions about the ramifications of losing the iPhone.

Google Maps has been one of the company’s most consistently useful and popular products ever since it was introduced, and the features demonstrated Wednesday at its San Francisco office were in that tradition. Google Maps users on Android will soon be able to download offline maps that will work in subways, subterranean buildings, or areas with spotty Internet connections. And Google Earth users on both Android and iOS will soon have a neat 3D user interface generated in typical Google fashion: the obsessive collection of useful data processed and analyzed by huge computing resources to produce something fun and practical.

But timing is everything. Google refused to say when the new features would become available, only saying that the offline maps for Android would become available “in the next few weeks.” And the launch of the 3D mapping features in Google Earth wasn’t even assigned a vague target. (Google didn’t immediately respond to an inquiry regarding when they decided to hold the event.)

Instead, Brian McClendon, vice president of engineering for Google Maps, gave equally vague responses to a half-dozen questions about the reports that Apple will replace Google Maps on the iPhone later this year with its own mobile mapping software, something that is expected to be announced Monday at Apple’s Worldwide Developers Conference.

Google’s attempt to promote Google Maps ahead of that expected announcement–which is not coming as a surprise to Google executives if half the anecdotes in a long Wall Street Journal story on the topic are true–therefore fell flat. Nobody thinks that Apple is dumping Google Maps because it and iOS users believe Google has built an inferior product. Instead, Apple would prefer to deny Google a large source of local advertising and the reams of data that come along with intense usage of Google Maps on iOS.

Holding such an event now–these features could have easily been announced in a few weeks when Google will own the spotlight at Google I/O–only makes Google look that much more worried about its potential iOS problem.

And that’s before Apple has even shown off a product. If the reports are true, Apple is incurring a significant risk by trying to fix something in iOS that isn’t broken.

It’s therefore a little hard to understand why Google wouldn’t want wait to see what Apple has in mind before responding: after all, it might look pretty good in a side-by-side comparison.

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