There's No Such Thing As A Free Map

It is a disaster. It isn't a disaster. It's better outside the U.S. It's terrible in Japan. It's Apple's fault. It's Google's fault... I'm talking about the Google versus Apple maps fracas, and there's just about only a single thing we can all agree on: It's complicated.

A little legwork by the New York Times has turned up a surprising and useful fact that puts most of the debate about Apple's new Maps app in context: Including maps on the original iPhone was a last-minute decision by Steve Jobs. In the run-up to the release, this meant a handful of Apple engineers had to scramble to put together an app using available data. At the time Google and Apple had a good relationship, and if you remember Eric Schmidt actually appeared on stage at the launch—so including Google's data, even incomplete as it was, proved a smart and timely decision.

Courtesy of the iPhone, and later Android, times have changed and we now expect at least a basic mapping solution as part of our phone experience. Both Apple and Google now provide their own, sophisticated, free maps solution for the world's smartphone buyers.

But here's some things to remember: You get what you pay for. And Apple and Google's map apps have competition.

The Competition

Garmin spokesperson Johan-Till Broer explained the mess from his company's viewpoint in an email to Fast Company. "It takes a lot of time, experience and effort to build accurate and reliable maps and navigation features," he began. "Garmin has 20 years of experience developing navigation solutions and we're today the global leader in satellite navigation." Compared to Google's handful of years of mapping the world—despite its clever innovations—and Apple's fresh arrival on the scene, Garmin's experience is hard to challenge. Its map provider is Navteq, which has also been in the business for 20 years. Synthesizing the navigation experience of Garmin and the map details data from Navteq into one package is hard, and that's why you pay tens of dollars for their smartphone apps.

Paying For Maps

Johan argues that this paid for status of Garmin's apps is an advantage: "Because of the quality and feature-richness of our navigation solutions, we've been able to successfully compete with free navigation apps, which had been available even before Apple Maps launched (through Google Maps on Android and third-party apps on the iPhone)." Garmin's apps, enhanced by purchasing competitor Navigon last year, offer extras like advanced lane assistance at freeway exits, speed limit alerts, images of road signs to aid your driving with visual cues, integrated points of interest databases, fuel prices, and many more. Garmin also makes money by selling some of these as in-app enhancements.

But who makes money when you use Apple's or Google's maps? They do—albeit fractions of a penny at a time. That's because these map datasets plug into all the location-based services among other Apple and Google apps on the iOS and Android platform (and third party apps too). Google, we know, makes more money via ads from selling its services on iOS than it does on Android. That's why Google built its various mapping services in the first place.

Your phone network, depending on your tariff, also makes money from you when you use Apple and Google's maps because the map tiles are downloaded from their servers. It's not much data, sure, but an extended maps session if you're navigating a long way could push you over your monthly or daily data limit, and cost you dollars. That's definitely the case if you're overseas, and Broer pointed out that if you're downloading map or routing data on the move, you "might not be able to calculate routes in areas where cell phone coverage is spotty." And if you're out in the wild, that's often where a map comes in darn handy.

The Future of Mapping

Garmin uses its income to improve its services all the time, Google and Apple do the same, and all of these companies use data directly from customers to hone and polish their systems—Garmin's iPhone app has a huge pop-up to remind you of this, and offer you an opt-out, when you launch it for the first time.

But you can argue that both Apple and Google have an unfair advantage in this game—their apps are the default on devices (although it's more complex with Android), and thus users may be discouraged from experimenting with mapping apps. Till-Broer explained a little of his company's future developments in the light of Apple's entry: "In terms of future developments, I can say that we're definitely working on even more advanced navigation capabilities that will further differentiate our apps." Specifically, there'll be "integration of even more real-time information, advanced map views, and even better ways to guide drivers on the road."

Google and Apple are bound to be chasing down these roads too, in an attempt to improve their maps and make sure they keep earning income. In this light, perhaps it's worth considering that the Apple-Google maps fiasco is a battle, and we're just seeing the first skirmishes. It'll likely be good for consumers, because it drives competition in a service that's very useful in our digital world.

Think about it: When you travel to a new city on vacation do you trust the incomplete, ad-decorated free map your hotel hands out to you perfectly? Or would you buy a proper map and guide book, and trust its more detailed data?

[Image: Flickr user wwarby]

Chat about this news with Kit Eaton on Twitter and Fast Company too.

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6 Comments

  • Marc

    "Google-Apple maps fiasco"  wtf?  try "Apple maps fiasco" instead.

    Your daily idiocy brought to you by Kit I'm-an-Apple-loving-sheep Eaton.

  • Nyle

    Yes there is such a thing as free maps. Try Nokia maps. Turn by turn, offline maps (no data required), free for life, for the entire world, it even comes with 3D buildings for major cities. 

  • Walking Papers Media

    you get all the above with Walking Papers- print isn't dead folks.

  • Locally

    Google continues to dominate the Maps scene because of street view and turn-by-turn navigation data that they have been collecting for several years. Collecting and maintaining this data costs tons of money and so yes maps data is not free even though the app may be free to customers.

    We think Google will offer their own Maps app on iOS 6.