Has Apple Maps Beaten Google Maps Where it Counts?

We all know that the press had a field day with Apple Maps release with iOS 6. After all, there is nothing like introducing a new "3D Fly-over" feature that is highly visible and yet highly flawed in how it depicts the scenery. While those 3D rendering/topology defects have been cleaned up and Apple has been hard at work vastly improving Apple Maps, one can still easily argue that Google Maps is technically superior to Apple Maps. Certainly Google Maps provides integrated transit directions for those that need it. The mapping data behind Google is better at finding addresses and points of interests because it has had more time and visibility to get user feedback on errors over the course of years. If you are interested in a technical comparison (including one of the SDK's), there is a recent report authored by Michael Grothas at Fast Company that is a fantastic read.

As far as improvements, Apple has been hiring "Ground Truth Specialists" to help improve Apple Maps and has been relying on the "Report a Problem" buttons integrated into the app.

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Despite the problems, however, when surveyed about Apple Maps at the height of the media outcry, most people said that Apple Maps was good enough for them. Today it has only gotten better though it sorely lacks the direct integration into public transit that is a must for some users in some cities. It should be mentioned, that Apple Maps does integrate with third-party transit solutions, but it requires an App-Hopping experience when navigating your route.

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Like most folks, when Google Maps became available for free on iOS, I went ahead and downloaded it. Since then I have opened the app two, maybe three, times. Why? Because Apple Maps just works for me most of the time. It finds the business I am looking for. It can route to the locations I am going. It integrates directly with Siri for me. It is just simple to use. I still rely on Navigon for long vacation trip routing since I like more information on the display and the Apple solution is a bit too minimalistic for me in that case, but I have the option of using Navigon or Google Maps while still using Apple Maps most of the time.

What makes me curious is how much Apple Maps affects Google's business model. If it is true that 75% of Apple users are fine with Apple Maps as is and that Apple Maps is only getting better every day, then that means 75% of Google's Maps-related ad impressions from iOS just disappeared. Previously, if you had clicked on a business and drilled down you would have gotten to Google's ads by clicking through to the website. No longer is that the case.

Much like Android did not have to be better than iOS to meet Google's business model -- it only had to be good enough to consume Blackberry and Symbian and Windows Mobile for a cheap price and then could spend time improving. Apple Maps does not need to be better than Google Maps to hurt Google's business model. It just needs to be good enough to get most Apple users to use it and then take its time improving in every release with the data provided from that user base.

Then I look at news about Jeff Huber stepping down as Google Maps chief, and I wonder if Apple Maps really has affected Google's mobile revenue. If mobile revenue is down in Q1 at Google then it would be Jeff Huber and Andy Rubin who would answer for it. These are the the same two guys who were just reassigned in the organizational restructuring at Google. I am curious to see if Google's Q1 earnings report to see if mobile earnings might really be the driver behind this restructuring effort at Google.

If you think about it though.... Apple's cloud-based services only have to be good enough to draw away 50% of Google's users to put a huge dent in Google's revenue. Google certainly has the technically superior cloud services, albeit the creepier ones, but being the best is not good enough sometimes. Android was "good enough" for many people and that "good enough" status lead it to be the most popular smartphone operating system in the world. It may not be the most liked or the most used (i.e.: iOS users tend to use their devices more by most Web traffic measurements and in-flight wifi measurements and app-store revenue measurements), but Google makes money on impressions which means market share is key. If market share is your main strength, then you can be extremely vulnerable to anybody who makes a service that is good enough to draw away a sizable fraction of your users. Is Apple Maps that service?

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If Apple Maps could dent Google's mobile revenue (and it is still a big if), then why hasn't Bing put a dent in Google's search revenue? Certainly, Bing is "good enough" for most people. I tried switching to Bing for about month and I felt it was not "good enough" for me since it was missing important search results and was slower, but I would imagine most folks would use it if it was installed as their default search engine. I think the difference lies in how well entrenched the incumbent is. In the case of search "Google" has become a verb synonymous with "Web Search" (unless you are watching Hawaii Five-O where the cast is paid to say "Let me Bing that"). However, with mobile maps, the user interface on iOS has always belonged to Apple. It was Google's terms for the data and backend API's that prevented Apple from adding features to the user interface. The users in this case were accustomed to using the little app in their iPhones called "Maps". The change from "Google Maps" to "Apple Maps" on iPhone is more of a change from "Apple Maps backed by Google Data" to "Apple Maps backed by Apple Data". Many users may think that little Maps app on their iPhone or iPad is still "Google Maps". Unseating 50% to 70% of Google's presence on iOS would be pretty easy for Apple to do if they had a "good enough" product. And from usage measurements, we know that iOS users were likely the more active of the Google Maps users since these are the same people who actually use their mobile web browsers, download apps, and care about having WiFi in flight.

So is Apple Maps technically better? I'll let you be the judge of that. Is Apple Maps making a gigantic dent in Google's mobile presence in six short months? That may very well be the case.