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Google Maps in iOS 5 was a superior user experience to the new Apple Maps app introduced in iOS 6, but it doesn’t mean that if Google launches a new Google Maps app for iOS it will be equal to the version that was integrated into iOS for so many years. This has nothing to do with how many features Google would implement, or how accurate its mapping data is. It has more to do with how users will be able to access the app.
Launching the Maps app, Apple’s way
Apple built its own Maps app to be integrated into other apps. It provides maps or directions for several apps Apple offers as well as third-party apps. For instance, from within Contacts, you can tap on an address and launch directly into the Apple Maps app. In both mobile Safari and the Mail apps, any text that resembles an address listed becomes a launch point into the Apple Maps app as well. The Apple Store app, Find My Friends, Find My iPhone, basically any app that has a location information in it has an opportunity to launch to the Apple Maps app directly.
With the introduction of iOS 6, Apple has enhanced the ability for third-party apps to launch into the Apple Maps app. This was accomplished by improving the integration between third-party apps and the Apple Maps app through a series of new features in Apple’s own MapKit API, the technology framework that developers of iOS apps utilize when developing location-aware applications. Not only has the way third-party apps launch into the Apple Maps app been extended to allow more information to be easily passed from app to app using what is referred to as a MKMapItem, third-party apps can also register with the the Apple Maps app as an app that can provide region-specific routing information by including a geographic coverage file.
Even with this new integration in iOS 6, looking at all of the other mapping apps available in the App Store, not one of them integrate into the stock Apple apps that come pre-installed on the device, or third-party apps downloaded from the App Store, in the same way that Apple’s Maps app does. This will likely be the case for Google’s Maps app if it reaches the App Store as well. In other words, a new Google Maps app for iOS 6 won’t work the same way Google Maps did on iOS 5 and earlier. When you click on an address in the Contacts app, or within an email message in the Mail app, or anywhere else, you will continue launch into the Apple Maps app. Having a Google Maps app on the device will not bring back the same Maps experience the you had in the past.
Launching the Maps app, Google’s way
Google might try to anyway. To see how Google can attempt to bring back a similar Maps experience, we can take a cue from what it has been doing with the apps it already has on iOS. Google has posted a common technique for third-party developers to use that will launch into Google’s Chrome browser rather than Safari. This technique will first check to see if Google’s Chrome app is installed on the device. If it is, the third-party app can then launch into Google’s Chrome app directly.
This utilizes a well known and documented app-to-app launching capability built into iOS referred to as using Custom URL Schemes. Using URL schemes is an Apple-supported means of launching from one app to another. The default behavior would of course be to launch directly into Apple’s Safari browser, which uses one of the system-supported URL schemes. There is nothing inherently wrong with the technique that Google is suggesting that developers use this.
This technique could easily be extended to Google’s yet-to-be-released Maps app as well. This would provide a means for Google to launch into their Maps app from any of the existing Google apps you have installed on your iOS device. And as Google has provided the technique to third-party app developers on how to do this with Chrome, as pictured below in the Feeddler app, it stands to reason they will likely try do the same with their Google Maps app.
This creates a potential opportunity for Google to integrate all of its iOS apps into one cohesive and consistent user experience that it can control. If you install Google’s Chrome, GMail, Maps and Search app, then you could turn your iOS device effectively into a Google device. Launching to and from each of Google’s apps would be seamless as they will all be optimized to work well with each other.
Battle of the apps
The problem with Google’s technique, from an end user’s point of view, is that it potentially removes the user’s ability to choose which app combinations they want to use. The suggested technique programmatically checks first to see if the Google app is installed on the device, and if it is, launch to the Google app instead of the Apple app. As an example, if you first install a travel app on your device, and you needed directions, it would launch to the Apple Maps app. But, later, should you install the Google Maps app on your device, the same travel app you installed previously would now launch to the Google Maps app instead — unless that app’s developer exposes an option to switch back and forth this will happen automatically.
Choosing to implement the Google-recommended techniques to launch Google’s apps on iOS, third-party developers will be able to choose to exclusively be part of the Google series of apps. Google could even aggressively start reaching out to developers as a means of including them in the Google iOS experience rather than the Apple iOS experience. It would take a complete replacement of the stock apps Apple includes with iOS to bring back the same integrated experience we once had with Google’s Maps app. With more than 20 apps in the iOS App Store already, all Google would need is a Compass, Flashlight and decent Contacts app to be complete.