A while back, the Noisecast’s own boss-in-chief Steven Callas shared with us his thoughts on the Apple location-tracking scandal as well as what it might imply for a rumored Apple Maps, and how this might affect the competition. Today, Apple put a lot of the uncertainty regarding that speculation to rest with a vague hint during a Q&A session, in which Apple let slip that the company “is now collecting anonymous traffic data to build a crowd-sourced traffic database,” and that they’re working to bring iOS users an “improved traffic service in the next couple of years.”
The question is, what does this mean for users of mapping services on both the iPhone and Android platforms? Well, the bulk of the answer is: not much, really.
First off, let’s start with the obvious, straight from the horse’s mouth. Apple says that they’re looking to bring an “improved traffic service in the next couple years”. A couple years is a long time in the smartphone world. It’s unclear at this point what, exactly, Apple is planning in the mapping world, but it’s clear they’re planning something. Until it launches, however, Apple is doing nothing. If Apple does not launch anything in the next couple years, then the net effect of Apple’s map services will remain zero. Rumors and whispers can mean a lot to those who follow the tech industry (or the stock market), but for consumers, nothing will change.
The next question is, how will this traffic service affect Google Maps once it’s launched? Well, again, this depends on what the service is when it’s released. If you’ve never used Google Maps on an Android phone, you may not realize just how many different services are rolled into one package. Google Maps incorporates turn-by-turn navigation, street view options, satellite as well as vector map images, and Google Places which is a huge directory of information about local businesses and venues. Google Maps incorporates a large number of various databases that come together to paint a thorough picture of the world around you. Databases that Google has been compiling since long before they developed Android. It would take some time for Apple to reach feature parity with Google Maps and certain things cannot be skirted around. One could imagine a scenario where Apple licenses map or street view data from Bing, but then this puts Apple in no better position then they were before, relying on a third-party for their services. Apple will have to do some data collecting of their own if they’re going to provide their service.
Then, there’s the question of market share. According to comScore’s most recent numbers, Android now accounts for a full 1/3rd of U.S. smartphone users, whereas Apple’s iPhone only accounts for 1/4th of smartphone users in the U.S., and the divide is growing monthly. While it’s true that iOS is larger than just the iPhone, the iPod Touch does not come with a GPS standard, and only certain models of the iPad include GPS. This is not to say that an Apple-branded Maps service would be of no interest to these users at all, however certain things, like this confirmed upcoming traffic service, would not function at full-capacity on many of these devices. The clearest indicator of the largest market for this new service is iPhone users, and that market is and will in all likelihood remain smaller than Android’s marketshare. That’s 23 million Americans that have Google Maps installed on their phones by default. For comparison’s sake, Netflix just recently became larger than Comcast in terms of subscriber base with a total of 22.8 million subscribers.
Of course, it’s not impossible for any service to be overthrown. After all, WinMo and Symbian were hugely popular and deeply entrenched smartphone platforms just five years ago, and now they’ve both been abandoned by their masters. It’s worth noting, however, that a more likely threat to Google Maps is looming over in the Microsoft camp. Microsoft has had Bing on the market for two years now, and the information that comes along with having a search engine crawling the internet is of paramount importance to a maps service. Additionally, Microsoft has recently acquired the rights to a large amount of map data from Nokia in their smartphone deal, in the form of Ovi Maps, which has already had full turn-by-turn navigation and mapping powers on select Nokia smartphones for years now. WP7 doesn’t really have a huge amount of marketshare at this point in the game, however, neither did Android a year after its release. In fact, in a rather stunning coincidence, Android began to grow in dominance when they finally released a device on Verizon, a year after Android’s advent, and the device came coupled with a powerful new maps application. Currently, WP7 is not on Verizon, has no powerful maps service to rival Google Maps, and is still less than a year old. The parity with Android on all three of these fronts is inevitable.
So, whether from Apple or Microsoft, the competition for Google Maps dominance is inevitable. That was never in question. Will it mean the “end of an era”? Well, that depends on how you define said era. Is it the era where Google Maps is the only full-featured map service on a smartphone platform that hasn’t been abandoned by its owners around? Well, sure. That “era” is going to end. If, however, you’re defining “the Google Maps era” as “a period of time where Google Maps exists”, then of course that era is not going to end any time soon. Competition does not equal annihilation.
As I mentioned in a previous editorial, the three future smartphone leaders are all moving towards each other’s areas of expertise. Google’s moving towards music and movies, Apple’s moving towards maps and cloud data, and Microsoft? Well, frig, they’ve already got their feet plenty wet in every area. The future is going to be an exciting time, and if the only “era” that’s ending is the past where everything sucks, I’m good with that.