October 2nd, 2012

There’s been a lot written about Apple’s Maps application in iOS 6, and for good reason—it’s a dramatic shift for Apple and for customers, and in significant ways, Maps is a significant downgrade for customers.

That’s an important topic, but what I think is more interesting is why Apple decided they needed to do maps themselves. On the face of it, maps seems like a classic case where Apple should partner with someone who knows how to do it really well instead. Of course, that’s precisely what they did for five years. The problem is their partnership with Google prevented them from making the best maps application they possibly could, and could potentially compromise the platform. Google insisted that Apple insert more Google branding in the application and build in support for Google’s Latitude service, which allows people to see where their friends are, to get access to new features like vector tiles and turn-by-turn directions.

For obvious reasons, Apple doesn’t like being beholden to other companies for something that’s integral to their products, and the maps application is certainly one of them. Negotiations with Google—a company that became Apple’s biggest competitor in mobile—soured, with Google requesting things that Apple did not feel were in the interests of their platform. It’s not surprising that Apple realized how dangerous of a situation they were in; their main competitor controlled the maps data—one of the key features for mobile phones—for the iPhone, a product responsible for more than 43 percent of their sales in 2011, and they were withholding new features from Apple in return for concessions. And to make it worse, Apple’s customers were improving Google’s maps data through use, and were thereby making Android a stronger product, too.

That’s the very immediate reason Apple developed their own maps: Google was preventing them from improving the application (and keeping Apple at a competitive disadvantage), and being so dependent on your competitor is never a positive situation. So Apple built their own. That’s classic Apple.

I think there’s a bit more to it, though, and it has to do with the underlying data Maps is built on. The data is not simply map tiles and location data—it’s user data. By using Maps—by getting directions somewhere, choosing a route and following it (or diverting) to the location, there’s a lot of data created. There’s data about what route people prefer, how long it took (is there traffic? How accurate is the algorithm for estimating travel time?), whether the route chosen is still viable, et cetera. This data is useful in the aggregate and for the individual user.

Apple’s already been collecting data from iPhone users to build a real-time traffic database—that’s one example of how this data can be very useful. Another example is that, in the aggregate and over time, you can start to see how people really drive in a particular area. What routes do most people take to get somewhere? How long does it take at this time of day, under these conditions? That’s quite useful for making smart route recommendations and estimates for how long it will take.

Moreover, this kind of information builds a very detailed profile for each individual user. Where they live, where they often go, what their habits are. That kind of data is part of what allows the Google Now service, where it attempts to predict—based on context, your search history and past activities—what kind of information you want at that moment.

Apple is likely thinking about how they can build similar kinds of features for the iPhone. It seems obvious that these devices are turning into not just information sources for us, but assistants that find what we’re looking for and do tasks on our behalf. Siri is a strong step in that direction, and Passbook is, too. But user data like this is a large part of what will allow it to happen. By combining it with other profile data, it could, say, notify the local coffee shop you go to regularly you’re on the way so there’s an americano ready when you arrive, movie times for movies you’d probably like on a Friday or Saturday night (without asking), or the release of a new book from an author you love.

It’s certainly not in Apple’s interest, then, to provide this kind of data to Google, but it’s also important for them to control their users’ data. It’s only going to become more integral to the platform’s success in the future. Ditching Google Maps was certainly done so Apple could make Maps a better application today, but I also think it was so Apple can build a unique future for iOS that’s increasingly dependent on user data.