To be clear, iOS is still rotten with Google Maps data. Almost every other iOS functionality is based on it. But if this really is the warning shot, Apple’s got the tools on hand to go another way in a hurry.
Can’t Beat ‘Em? Buy ‘Em
Over the past few years, Apple’s quietly put together a heathy little stable of mapping companies. No products have come of them thus far but key acquisitions have given Apple the mapping muscle to, at the very least, power some peripheral features on its own—even if for now that still means using Google Maps as its main backbone.
Last year, Apple picked up C3 Technologies, which specializes in hyper-realistic 3D mapping. The previous two years it was Placebace, a company that customizes and overlays information on maps, and Poly9, which is a lot like Google Earth.
Those companies give Apple a solid foundation, but none really operates on the scale of Google Maps. They’re fancy carburetors, deluxe exhaust systems, but Google Maps has been the only engine really capable of driving a high-powered maps app. Until now.
The Enemy of My Enemy
You remember Bing, right? Its search is good. Its maps are even better. It’s a ready-made product that actually compares pretty favorably to Google Maps in most ways, and the Maps app would sweep the unfortunate connotation “Bing” carries under some sort of rug. But in certain situations, Bing can be horribly outstripped by Google, and any kind of dropoff in performance (that doesn’t come from an in-house product, at least) seems like a longshot for Apple. And for what it’s worth, TNW has confirmed that this new, non-Google mapping data isn’t powered by Bing. And then there’s the little issue of Bing Maps being slowly rebranded as Nokia Maps. It’s unlikely that Apple would want any part of its iPhone sponsored by a hardware competitor.
Despite all that, Bing still has obvious appeal. It’s impossible to overstate the value of a ready-made backbone to a mapping system, especially one already linked up to its own search engine. Apple’s seen firsthand how hard it is to build search from scratch. Plus, moving to Microsoft from Google is lateral movement collaborating-with-the-competition-wise, a net positive despite any functionality shortcomings that Apple’s in-house savvy can’t make up for. And Microsoft’s shown a willingness to make money off of rival platforms. See: Bleeding Android OEMs dry. As for the Nokia tie-up, well, that’s just a name. Those can be changed or ignored.
So an iOS-Bing love team might seem far fetched, but there’s sense to be made from the pairing, too. And remember, it wasn’t too long ago that Apple and Microsoft were considering a Bing search tie-in.
Free and Easy
Or maybe Apple won’t even have to. OpenStreetMap, an open-source map project, could actually make an early end of the mapping arms race by rendering it obsolete. OSM gathers data from portable GPS devices, local knowledge, aerial photography, and widely-available official sources, like government data and donated information from corporations.
Both The Next Web and 512 Pixels took a close look at Apple’s new maps and determined that, at least graphically, the new maps in iPhoto don’t appear to be OSM. That doesn’t mean OSM data isn’t being used, but any ties, for the moment, are still purely speculative. In the future, though, it has the potential to grow into the engine for a legitimate mapping system. One Apple doesn’t have to pay for.
Update: The OSM Foundation has confirmed that Apple is, indeed, using OSM data with its own customized map tiles for iPhoto. Except, erm, it didn’t tell OSM that it was going to, didn’t give mandatory credit to OSM contributors. And for some reason, Apple’s using data from April 2010. Weird all over.
Anything Not Google
Though the relationship between Apple and Google Maps has worked out wonderfully to this point, the folks at Cupertino have to hate that Google is still the central power behind one of the most central apps and functions of iOS. It’s hard to go thermonuclear on a cog in your own machine. Apple’s shown with its Samsung lawyer slapfights that it’s willing to go down that road—Samsung provides all kinds of juicy iProduct components—but it’s certainly not an ideal situation.
Regardless of how Apple pulls off its Google Maps band-aid, it’s going to happen because it has to happen. These are two companies at war. Punches. Counterpunches. They’ll always have to interact—that’s the nature of monoliths doing business in the same space—but when has Apple ever turned down an opportunity to expand the reach of its walled garden? When has it ever given comfort to the enemy?
So while for now location data for Places is still Google and Google Maps are still iOS default, it’s an uneasy truce. Apple’s been steadily building up its stable of digital cartographers. And this is the first signal that the company full intends to use it.