Last week, though, Apple gave notice it would enter the battle, announcing that in the fall, its phones would no longer carry Google maps, but instead would have Apple’s own map service built in, part of its new mobile operating system. Maps are simply too important to be left to a rival.
The question is: Can Apple build a map service that does as good a job, or a better one, than Google has?
If Apple slips up, consumers in the highly competitive smartphone market may have a good reason to turn to Android phones. If Apple succeeds, Google will be under pressure at a time when it already has to deal with other competitors in map services.
“It makes Apple more valuable and denies Google a lot of user data, and a brand presence, on the iPhone,” said Ben Bajarin, an analyst with the technology research firm Creative Strategies. If Apple cannot meet or exceed Google’s maps, he added, “it will irk their power users,” who are the most valuable customers.
Apple’s move into maps was not exactly a surprise. It has bought a few companies that make mapping features, like three-dimensional visualizations, and has secured rights to data like the names and layouts of streets in over 100 countries from TomTom, a big digital map company based in the Netherlands.
But making digital maps is not easy. Google has spent years working on its services, pouring all kinds of resources into the effort, including its Street View project to photograph and map the world. It will be hard to duplicate that depth and breadth.
“Apple has gotten into a place that is very technical, quite a challenge, and like nothing they’ve done before,” said Noam Bardin, chief executive of Waze, a mapping service that provides real-time traffic information by tracking the movement of phones.
Still, it would be foolish to underestimate Apple, said John Musser, editor of ProgrammableWeb, an online service that follows mobile application development.
“Apple so far has close to nothing in maps, because they never had a product before,” Mr. Musser said. “But they are hardly empty-handed.”
Mapping technology is a growing field that draws on everything from aerial photography to the movement of the continents, to individual comments on Web sites about a favorite hiking trail or a bad dining experience. ProgrammableWeb counts 240 mapping-related services that people building mobile map applications can draw from. That is up 73 percent from a year ago, and 243 percent from 2009.
Apple has offered few details about its plans for the map service, which is part of the new operating system, iOS 6, that was unveiled at the company’s annual developer conference in San Francisco. Some of the features may come from companies that it now owns. Apple may buy other features — like store locations and hours, and information about walking paths, landmarks and public transportation — from data companies, independent developers and consumer information services like Yelp.
Apple can expect to pay a lot of money for this information. Google declined to comment on what it spends on its map business, but others in the industry estimate that the figure is $500 million to perhaps $1 billion annually, equal to a fifth of its budget for research and development.
For consumers, an important part of the Apple service is likely to be the apps that support and enhance it. This week, Apple is set to widely release its instructions, known as a software development kit, to guide developers in designing these apps.
Those instructions are important to hundreds of independent software developers like Scott Rafer, whose start-up is…