Does the ‘Arms Race’ Over Mapping Tech Benefit the Local Consumer?

Earlier this month Amazon acquired a small mapping company called UpNext that builds stunning 3D representations for mobile devices — an area in which both Google and Apple have invested heavily. Apple, for its part, previewed the new Flyover feature coming in iOS 6 last month, winning a predictable cavalcade of praise.  Meanwhile, Google took the opportunity last month to announce major improvements to its maps, including far better 3D maps in Google Earth. But the question remains whether these kinds of mapping systems will translate into more value for the consumer.

“The two of them are in an arms race right now, where they are trying to one up each other on the ‘wow factor,’” Elliot Cohen, CEO of CityMaps, recently told me about Google and Apple’s recent investments in 3D and aerial mapping technologies. “You take a look at a 3D map and your mind is probably blown, but its not particularly useful going forward.”

Mapping startups like CityMaps have seen a renaissance of sorts in recent months, with the forthcoming release of Apple Maps on iOS 6 threatening Google’s seven-year stranglehold over the industry. Market share is hard to come by in the mapping space, but with Google off of iOS and Apple leaving out key features like multi-modal navigation, talk of disruption is now a realistic discussion.

“What Apple and Google are doing now is spending time and resources building functionality on top of a very low level set of requirements (i.e. utilities like visualization and navigation) that we think are going in the complete wrong directions,” said Aaron Rudenstine, CityMaps’ COO. “Once you establish those basic services, the focus of any mapping company should switch to discovery.”

As the consumer’s relationship with local information has shifted from search to discovery, so has their relationship with maps. The question for Google and Apple is whether 3D mapping is an innovation built to sustain, or disrupt, the search-based local web that Google envisioned when it launched Maps in 2005.

“Apple and Google are focused on the next-gen version of the map, but the next-gen technology isn’t what people are engaging with — it’s kind of a bet on the future,” Joe Meyer, CEO of navigation service HopStop, told Street Fight in an interview. Meyer says that he questions why Apple left out key features like transit routing in favor of ancillary services like Flyover, but that as an executive of a mapping company, is “thrilled with the decision.”

The next few months will have huge implications for the local information space as the details of Apple Maps are ironed out. If Apple opens its platform, we could see a reimagining of what the map means for both hyperlocal industry and the local consumer.

Steven Jacobs is Street Fight’s deputy editor.