Monday, September 17, 2012

Apple may have made its first big blunder with Maps; will Google release its own iOS maps app, or would they be smart to keep their service exclusive to Android?

I've been an iPhone user since the fall of 2007 and I've often laughed at Apple critics who yearly predict the eventual decline of the iPhone. This year, with the release of the iPhone 5, it looks like once again Apple will break sales records, not to mention profit records.
But this weekend I had my first "oh-oh" moment with the iPhone.

I had loaded the gold master of iOS 6 earlier in the week and played around with the new software. There is not much different with iOS 6, disappointedly. A new Panorama feature inside the camera app is fantastic, though – I tested it out quite a number of times and came up with great results. I truly feel sorry for those developers with their own pano apps, it's time for them to move on.

I also "looked at" the new Apple maps. The new maps are powered by TomTom and will replace the Google Maps app that previous was standard in the iOS system.

The old Google Maps app was designed by Apple, so the new app almost looks identical. A lot of effort, or maybe none at all, was expended to make sure users did not immediately see a difference.

Maps can not be easily tested. One can do a few searches, look at a few locations, but the real test of any navigation tool is in its day-to-day use.

So this weekend I did my first real world tests of the new Apple maps – and they failed miserably.

First, some important disclosures: I live in the Chicago area, not the backwoods. A major metropolitan area should be an easy test for any mapping software.

My test, too, was an easy one: locate a major, gigantic retail store, located right off the freeway and easily see from that same freeway. Also, make sure it is a national brand, not some obscure retailer.

OK, search.

TomTom could locate stores by the same name miles away, but the store I was near was not identified. I looked at the satellite view and there it was. So why couldn't my iPhone find this nearby store?

Later, just to confirm, I did the same search, but at home, further away from the locate of any of the retailers stores. This search produced no results at all.

Left: You can't miss it, the local Costco, located right off the freeway; Middle: Oops, the new Apple maps can not find or identify the store; Right: But the old Google Maps, seen on an iPhone using iOS 5, had no problem finding the store.

This is only one anecdote and so one shouldn't read too much into it. But many have wondered why Google has not released a new maps app for iOS – has the app been held up by Apple? After all, there is a clear rule that no apps can be approved that duplicate the basic function of the phone. But other browsers have been approved, so one would think Apple would be hard pressed to justify not approving a Google Maps app.

Maybe Apple is delaying the approval of a Google Maps app until after the iPhone ships, allowing users to try out the new app first.

Or maybe Google has not submitted their own app. If I were an executive at Google I would have commanded that the company develop the app but not submit it until they had a chance to test out Apple's new mapping solution.

If the new Apple maps prove to be as disappointing as they at first seem to be, why would Google release an app for iOS. Instead, by keeping their maps exclusive to Android, they may now have a features so important to users that many iPhone users may consider a switch.

If Apple Maps are the iPhone's Achilles' heel, Apple would have only themselves to blame for what could follow next.