How long will iOS users suffer with Apple Maps before Google arrives?

This article may contain personal views and opinion from the author.
How long will iOS users suffer with Apple Maps before Google arrives?
If you follow any other tech news sources, you may have noticed that for some reason, there is a question going around of "Will Google release a Maps app for iOS?", which is a silly question. The question shouldn't be "will", but "when will" the Google Maps app be released, because some sources say that Google has already submitted its app for approval. For some reason, writers are somehow confused by a Google statement saying that the company's "goal is to make Google Maps available to everyone who wants to use it, regardless of device, browser, or operating system." Somehow people are taking this to mean that Google might not make an iOS Google Maps app, which is an interpretation that we find baffling. 

The fact of the matter is that Google has already confirmed that it is not only working on a Google Maps app for iOS, and will release it, but that the company plans for the app to be "amazing". That came directly from Google's Senior Vice President of Commerce & Local, Jeff Huber, so there is little reason not to believe the statement. So, that means the real question is when the app will be released, or maybe more to the point: How long will Google let iOS users suffer with Apple Maps?

You would have to be doing a banner job of avoiding Apple news over the past day to not hear about what a disaster Apple's Maps application has turned out to be. The app is missing important features like public transportation information (which can still be added via a 3rd party app). We've heard about how Apple's data set is terrible, so depending on where you live, you won't be able to find anything you're looking for. For example, if you happen to be a university student, or live in Japan, you shouldn't expect any results to come up even if you can see the place listed on the map itself. We've also seen that even if the Maps app does bring back results for a search, it can have any number of problems, like: not pointing to the correct location, giving bad directions, or simply mislabeling places. All that and we haven't even mentioned the random quality of the maps, and the awful mess that can arise from the 3D effect. If you need any more proof, just head over to The Amazing iOS 6 Maps Tumblr for a constant stream of the problems that users are finding. 

The expectations on Apple

None of this should really be a surprise, of course. We pointed out all of the troubles that Apple would face in building its own Maps app when the pieces began to fall into place last year. Apple didn't build the app from the ground up though. The app pulls heavily from OpenStreetMaps and Yelp, both of which have been around longer than Google Maps. Even so, Apple was undoubtedly going to be starting out with a far smaller data set than Google, and no matter what Apple did, it was going to be compared to a product that has been evolving for 7 years. It's unlikely that any company, let alone Apple, could have stood up in a comparison to Google Maps with a first generation product.

Of course, Apple has built a world for itself where there has historically never been things like "reasonable expectations". This is mostly due to the company's tradition of not just holding products "until they are ready", but holding products "until they are done". That can be a big gap. Tim Cook may be starting to manage expectations of the company, but overall, when Apple releases a new product it is expected to be a high quality product. It may not be the best around, and it may not make everyone happy, but Apple products aren't supposed to be released if they are are flat out buggy, broken, and not ready for prime time. However, the past two years have had two such releases. First, Siri was released to server outages, slow responses, and relatively inaccurate responses. It wasn't a total disaster, but it was well below the expected polish of an Apple product. Now, Apple's Maps app has lowered the bar even further

At least in the past, Apple users could hold on to the mantra that even if Apple didn't release all of the features you were looking for, it meant that when the feature was released, it would be ready, and it would be good. Now, it seems almost as if Apple has lost its focus. Rather than concentrating on the things that Apple excels at, the company has tried to become a jack of all trades, and build everything necessary for its platform. And, in the process, Apple is shifting towards the "master of none" status. Maybe that isn't wholly accurate just yet, but it is a fear that should be in the back of every Apple user's mind. 

No company can do everything, and that's a lesson that Apple can learn from Google. It seems that Google's Larry Page has certainly learned a big lesson in focus from Steve Jobs and Apple. Since becoming CEO, Page has killed off nascent or underused products and has brought focus to the company. On the other side of the aisle, Tim Cook may be asking too much from his team. 

Google's advantage and choice

Google may not have had a head-start on OpenStreetMaps and Yelp in building its maps and places database, but the company has had far more in terms of resources to commit to the projects. Google has poured huge amounts of money and resources into building Google Maps over the past 7 years. As of June, it was reported that Google's Street View cars had traveled 5 million miles and collected over 20 petabytes of images. That data isn't just used to build the Street View option, but to verify everything else that Google Maps offers. Google uses optical character recognition (OCR) and image recognition to match street names, and business signs to the Places data it has. Google Maps VP Brian McClendon recently said that the company had "'view codes' for 6 million businesses and 20 million addresses", by matching Street View data with its more traditional maps data. That number which is increasing daily, and set to make large leaps as Google Translate gets better and can aid in creating "view codes" in non-english speaking regions. It's quite fascinating just how much work is put in. We'd highly recommend looking into Google's Ground Truth team if you want to learn more.

All that to say what we already know: Google Maps is far better than Apple's offering (though, depending on who you ask, Google may not be the top Maps app available.) But, none of that matters if Google Maps doesn't exist on iOS. Sure, the web app is still there, but that is not a real solution to the power and features that can be made available in a native app, and that brings us back to the original question. 

It is relatively certain that Google is working on an iOS version of its Maps app, but it is impossible to know when said app will be released, or what the state of it will be when it is released. Google has certainly had time to work, because it has known for a while that it would not be part of iOS 6. We've already seen the fruit of part of that work with Google's release of the standalone YouTube app. Of course, that app is only for iPhone and has left iPad users with nothing but the web app to keep them going. With YouTube, that's not such a bad option, but with Google Maps, it would be far worse. 

Some may try to drum up fear that Google won't release an iOS version of Google Maps, or that it will willfully withhold the app in order to try to bring users to Android, but that simply isn't Google's M.O., as we've talked about before. For better or worse, Google brings its products where the users are, and if that means supporting a rival platform, then that's what the company does. Even if the Google Maps app were ready today, we wouldn't put it past Google to let Apple soak up some bad press over its Maps app before releasing Google Maps into the iTunes App Store, but we can't imagine the company would completely withhold the app. 

In the end, it looks as though Google has already submitted its Maps app for approval, according to some sources. So, maybe our question should be: How long will Apple make users suffer with iOS Maps before approving Google Maps? And, when it is approved, how much better will Google's offering be than Apple's?
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