When Apple announced it had developed its own homegrown maps system at its World Wide Developer Conference today, it wasn't just introducing another new feature for the iPhone. The announcement was the first major acknowledgement in the tech world that digital maps have moved from sideshow to center stage.
Digital mapping services, like Google Maps and Yahoo Maps, have always been handy and useful. But they've also always been secondary to companies' core strategies. With more and more computing being done on the go using mobile devices, however, maps have become as critical as cameras, calendars, and contacts.
That's why Apple can no longer afford to do what is has done until now: outsource responsibility for the maps on its iPhones to a third party (Google). And in The Great Tech War of 2012, Apple can even less afford to leave that much power in the hands of a company that is rapidly becoming its arch-rival.
"It's just a key thing you have to control," Peter Farago, vice president of marketing at Flurry, an app mobile analytics and monetization platform, tells Fast Company. "It's like countries protecting their food source. I don't want to have to import all my food in case we ever go to war."
On Monday, Apple announced that the next version of its mobile platform iOS (iOS 6), due out in the fall, will include a maps utility that was built in-house, presumably thanks to the acquisitions over the last few years of geo companies Placebase, Poly9, and C3 Technologies.
In addition to the maps themselves—complete with pinch, zoom, and multitouch capabilities, satellite and photorealistic imagery, and a nifty 3-D function called Flyover—iOS 6 also includes turn-by-turn navigation, which is integrated with Siri so directions can be requested and delivered by voice. The system has also 100 million business listings.
The Apple service doesn't have all of the functionality that Google Maps has been building over the last decade. But for Apple, this seems to be a long play, aimed at securing control of the mapping services on its devices, rather than an attempt to immediately compete head-to-head on all features.
"When you think about mobile use cases, maps are at the center of the actions that we take," Noah Elkin, an analyst at eMarketer, tells Fast Company, "whether you're using a map to search for directions or using other functionality on the phone that will drive people into the maps."
Going forward, as the tech world figures out how to use the phone to facilitate real-world commerce, maps are only going to become more important.
"The map is the visualization tool for all the location context," Alastair Goodman, CEO of location-based marketing company Placecast, tells Fast Company. "The ability to navigate you from A to B, the ability to populate things on that map that might be interesting along the way, whether that's where my friends are or places where I've been before, coupons that are available for me as I'm walking to work or that I might have stored in a mobile wallet—the map ends up being that rendering mechanism."
In this new world, then, the company that controls the map controls what can be done with it.
"If you are not the one who owns the map, you are subject to the whims of somebody else," Ed Lu, CTO of mapping company Hover (and former program manager of R&D at Google Maps and Google Earth), tells Fast Company. "If something turns out to be big or important, or if you want to offer new features, you may find you can't do it."
As a result, Apple's strategy around maps isn't simply to add a new ground-up feature to its proprietary devices but to integrate maps functionality throughout its mobile operating system—integration and unification were two of the strongest themes from Monday's WWDC keynote.
"They are integrating location context, or at least the possibility of it, into everything in the Apple experience," Goodman says. "Whether that's turn-by-turn navigation using Siri, whether that's integrating your calendar and email so that if you hover over an address and a map immediately pops up, and it can create directions—all of that kind of functionality at the OS level is the direction that this is going."
The move is clearly a blow to Google. While they lose the licensing fees Apple would have paid them for mapping services, more important are the lost opportunities to both use the maps to serve up ads or other local commerce features to iPhone users, as well as to use the maps to collect data about users that could be used to refine their advertising and search products.
"Where someone is and when they're there is highly predictive of the things they might be interested in, from a commerce and content perspective," Goodman says.
Accordingly, the Wall Street Journal reports, the Google Maps team has been anxious about the possibility about Apple replacing them, especially, the Journal reports, because "as many as half the people who access Google Maps own Apple devices."
Still, Apple has a long road ahead of it. The future of mobile maps is not about the maps themselves, but about everything you can build on top of them.
"Indexing the real world is a big and hard problem," Hans Peter Brondmo, who heads innovation for Nokia's Location & Commerce division, tells Fast Company. "You need to invest a huge amount in the infrastructure to do that."
The skill sets involve in tackling this problem are not ones Apple has historically mastered. It's traditionally focused on building great devices, not managing large amounts of data. But as we've written, the convergence of devices, content consumption, and data is forcing Apple and Google (as well as Facebook and Amazon) to push beyond their traditional areas of competency.
"It seems pretty clear that Google and Apple are destined to compete at every level and every turn when it comes to the mobile space," Elkin says.
He calls the battle over maps (as well as other recent fights, like the one over ads) "skirmishes."
"I don't know that anyone of them is going to be the thing that tips the balance in either direction," Elkin continues. "But they each one individually and collectively they have both strategic and symbolic importance."