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What to expect from "amazing Google Maps" for iOS

Posted: , posted by Michael H.

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The big story from the iOS announcement a couple weeks ago was that Apple was finally killing off the neglected Google Maps in favor of Apple's proprietary Maps application. One question that we were left wondering was not if, but when Google would re-release Google Maps as a standalone app for iOS. As we said before, the only barricade to Google doing this would be if Apple decides to suddenly ban all maps/navigation apps from the App Store under the anti-competitive rules about creating apps that "duplicate iOS functionality". The same rule which held alternative browsers out of the App Store, and is still keeping back alternative media players. 

We don't expect Apple to take this route, because of the firestorm that would follow in user and media backlash, so that opens up the very likelihood that we'll see Google Maps hit the App Store soon enough. Google's Senior Vice President of Commerce & Local, Jeff Huber, even confirmed recently that Google is committed to "providing an amazing Google Maps experience on iOS". So, this obviously begs the question: What would that "amazing experience" entail? Obviously, Google already has a solid base to work from with the Google Maps app that has been integrated into iOS, which features Google's maps, satellite imagery, traffic, directions, and Street View. So, what else can we expect from a standalone Google Maps app for iOS, now that Google has been unleashed (within Apple's restrictions) to create the Google Maps it really wants?

Turn-by-turn Navigation

What to expect from "amazing Google Maps" for iOS
This is a no-brainer. This has been a staple for Android users for quite a while now, but never made it to iOS. We can't say if it was Apple holding back Google's updates, or Google refusing to Apple's terms, but the fact is that turn-by-turn navigation is the huge "new-for-Apple" feature that is coming with iOS 6 and Apple Maps. Apple isn't about to ban super popular apps like Waze (especially given that Waze is helping Apple to generate traffic data for its own mapping), so it's pretty much a guarantee that Google will be bringing its own turn-by-turn navigation to iOS, likely with spoken directions as well. 

The two features of Navigation that may or may not make it into the first iteration of Google Maps would be: car dock mode, and traffic avoidance. We certainly expect these features from Google, it's just a matter of how much Google wants to rush in order to get the app into the App Store. Google's philosophy has tended to be "release early, iterate often", which means there may have to be decisions made as to when to release, and what features won't make the cut. We would hope that Google releases a more fully realized product, because the iOS approval process doesn't allow for as fast of an "iterate often" option as Google would normally prefer. 

Alternate travel methods

One of the best of the newer features available for Google Maps is the built-in routes and information from many public transport systems around the world.  For anyone living in a city, having access to public transport directions and info is a huge benefit, and one that Apple Maps cannot replicate right now. The same goes for Google Maps built-in options for giving biking directions. Of course, Apple has a Transport API in its Maps app, and we know that one of the hooks in that will be available at launch will be an app to add biking directions, but as of yet there has been no app that is stepping up to add public transport info. 

Ultimately, because of this API, Apple's offering could eclipse Google's because it allows for hooks in for all kinds of transport services like taxis, ferries, etc., but it is all dependent on 3rd party services hooking in. As Apple has proven in the past, it can make deals with developers to do the work, so we don't expect a situation like Android's People app, which has a great API, but no support. Still, having all of this standard in a Google Maps app would be big compared to having to add-on services with Apple's offering. 

Street View/3D Maps/Indoor Maps

Street View won't be anything new for users who have grown accustomed to Google Maps on iOS, but it is a feature that Apple doesn't have an answer for. One of the best parts of Google Navigation is that when you reach the end of your journey, it will switch to Street View to give you a visual of your destination. This is huge because often the GPS location doesn't quite match your actual location, so the place you are looking for could still be a little bit down the road when the app says, "You have reached your destination." Beyond the useful aspects of it, we all know just how much fun Street View can be when people get caught on camera, and that's something Apple won't be able to offer. 

What to expect from "amazing Google Maps" for iOS
3D Maps, however, is something that Apple has something of an answer to, with its Flyover feature. It would be a new feature for Google Maps on iOS though, and would be a nice addition to a Google offering. The question here would be whether or not Google would transition its entire library of maps data on iOS to vector graphics or not, like it has on Android. It seems like a good idea, because vector graphics are both more versatile, and faster to load than traditional bitmaps. 

The newest addition to Google Maps data has been indoor maps. This is a feature that's still early beta and doesn't have a lot of coverage outside of some major airports and malls, but if you happen to be in an area that has indoor maps, it can be very helpful (like perhaps CES). This seems like an easy enough feature to add in to an iOS app, because it is mostly dependent on the maps data coming in over-the-air, and it would be a good marketing point for Google, regardless of how useful it actually is. 

Latitude

What to expect from "amazing Google Maps" for iOS
This is the last feature that we're really expecting from a Google Maps offering in iOS. Location aware apps are allowed to run in the background on iOS, and Latitude has made the jump to iOS as a standalone app, but it is not a very good app. We feel comfortable assuming that deeper Latitude integration was something that Apple blocked, rather than one Google refused to add. There's no way that Apple would have allowed a feature that has become so closely tied with Google+ to be integrated into iOS, but there's no stopping it in a standalone Google Maps app, which is simply a far more fitting place for it to be. 

Latitude as a standalone app is somewhat bare-bones, not to mention the iOS Latitude app is not optimized for the iPad. It's not a bad app, but as we said, it's also not very good. If it were folded into a proper Google Maps app, it would be far more useful. 

Offline Maps

This is one that we do not expect to make the cut in Google Maps for iOS. We don't expect it mostly because it's a feature that hasn't even graduated from a Labs project to a Beta feature with Google Maps for Android just yet, although that transition is expected soon enough. This is another feature where Google has some work to do. As Nokia has proven, there are better ways to do offline maps, namely in being able to download defined regions (cities, states, countries, etc), not just 10 mile radius blocks like Google does. Of course, Google does have the newer feature in Maps where if you search for a neighborhood or county, it will highlight the area on the map, so Google does know where these defined regions are, and just has to make it easier to download more useful chunks. 

Conclusion

Taken all together the features that Google can offer in a standalone Google Maps app for iOS are pretty impressive, especially compared to what is essentially a first generation offering from Apple. As we said before, a lot does depend on how much time Google can put towards this project, and when it wants to have the app in the App Store. Presumably, Google would want it released in time for iOS 6, which is expected to launch with the iPhone 5 and perhaps the iPad mini in September/October. That only gives Google another 3 and a half months or so to work on this. We assume Google has been working on this before the iOS 6 announcement, because if anyone would know for certain that Apple was planning to ditch Google, it would be Google. 

The other issue to consider is just how much it will matter to have a standalone Google Maps app in the App Store. For sure, there will be quite a lot of users who will grab it, but as we've mentioned before, many users are pretty lazy. There are a lot of people out there who rarely, if ever, dive into the App Store and simply use the stock apps. On top of that, Apple is surely going to have pretty solid integration of its Maps app, meaning you will be able to initiate place searches, or even likely navigation from other apps like Safari or your Address Book. Google won't be allowed that kind of integration, because Apple doesn't allow changing the default apps. So, no matter how good Google Maps may be, it may ultimately face the same problem as alternate browsers on iOS, which is that they may be great products, but it doesn't matter much because of the restrictions placed by Apple. Just as it's easier to use Safari because links will always open in Safari, it may end up being too much of a hassle to use Google Maps, because places will open in Apple's Maps. 

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