Apple v Google: It’s never pretty when parents fight

When the last tech blogger in the land has weighed in on the Apple iOS6 Maps debacle — which at this rate should be within the week — perhaps we can have a more interesting conversation about the tectonic shifts shaping the mobile market (and our driving experience). Here’s my take on those shifts and how they explain the sorry state of Apple Maps.

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An old friend of mine once described how his parents got divorced over a red toaster. His father brought it home one day, there was a lot of yelling, and his mother moved out. Years later my friend, then in his own marriage, realized the toaster was simply the most tangible, if not the only tangible thing around which two forty year-olds (and a seven year old) could make sense of a doomed relationship.

I wasn’t in the C-suite when the decision happened, but I would be willing to bet considerable sums that Apple didn’t suddenly and arrogantly decide that it could build a better map app than Google had developed. The two companies have been on a collision course since Apple released its first iPhone and changed the face of mobile communications.

Google makes its money on ad revenue, which in turn depends on the usefulness of the search solutions it provides us, the consumer. Apple makes its money on the hardware, which in turn depends on the elegant and tightly integrated user experience that comes from controlling how harware, software, and services work together. Theirs is a co-dependent relationship.

In the iPhone world, Google’s fate was under Apple’s control. Something it couldn’t tolerate. So they created and gave away the Android operating system. Not to make money on the software directly, but instead to ensure that they would be able to control how and where they made money later, serving up ads (and who knows what other paying services) as consumers used the phones.

How important are maps to the ad revenue from mobile phones? According to the Wall Street Journal,

Maps are a big piece of the Apple-Google rivalry. Opus Research has estimated that mobile ads associated with maps or locations account for about 25% of the roughly $2.5 billion spent on ads in mobile devices in 2012.

So when Apple pulled kicked Google Maps out of iOS6, Google felt it. More than 100 million users have already downloaded the new OS, which means more than 100 million users suddenly stopped using Google Maps.

And as long as Apple relied on Google Maps, Apple’s fate was under Google’s control. A central part of the iPhone user experience was belonged to Google, and looked like it would perpetually lag behind its Android cousin. Google kept providing the iPhone its map application, but it was introducing new features on their Android version that were decidedly better, the company wouldn’t provide Apple with spoken turn-by-turn navigation, a free service on the Android mobile OS for several years now. (According to AllTHingsD), Apple wanted it.

And in the works are apps like Field Trip, that will push location-based information and offerings (and thus ad revenue) even further:

The types of notifications smartphone owners receive can also be personalized. For example, if you’re walking down New York City’s 5th Avenue and want information about the best places to shop, you can adjust the amount of “Offers & Deals” sent. But if you prefer to hear about the history of the Plaza Hotel and don’t want to spend a dollar, you can unsubscribe from the “Offers” list and amp up notifications in the “Architecture” or “Historic Places” feeds. (HuffPo)

Moreover, Apple’s Map on iOS is vector-based, versus raster-based, and thus uses less bandwidth to download and requires much less memory to store (or contains more data for the same space). Analysis by Onavo found that

On Google Maps, the average data loaded from the cellular network for each step was 1.3MB. Apple Maps came in at 271KB — that’s approximately 80% less data! On some actions, such as zooming in to see a particular intersection, Apple Maps’ efficiency advantage edged close to 7X.

Google’s Android Maps uses vector graphics, but not their iOS version. For Apple, a company whose value comes from integrating the hardware, software, and (through AT&T and others) the network performance — this is a non-trivial issue.

So what was Apple to do—stay in an abusive relationship? The longer they waited, the harder would be the break-up. Better to get it over with quickly, suffer now, than to deny the undeniable: their relationship was doomed from the start. Apple will be better off in the long run.

And yet Google’s PR group seemed to be working overtime in the first few days, pointing out flaws in Apple’s maps and taking the opportunity to unveil their planned upgrades. Google’s Chairman Eric Schmidt even publicly suggested that Apple should have continued to use Google’s mapping application in iOS 6, instead of “swapping it out for its poorly received home-brewed replacement.” To me, that sounded like bitter accusations in a custody battle for the kids (that us). They can point fingers at each other all they want, but their fate was sealed years ago and it wasn’t either of their faults.

It’s not about the map anymore than it was about the red toaster. Apple has been down this road before. As Steve Jobs once explained, “We never saw ourselves in a platform war with Microsoft, and maybe that’s why we lost.” This time, they saw it coming and did what they had to do. In the short run it hurts but, in the long run, the kids will be alright.