Apple Maps: Taking the Long View

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There’s no dancing around the fact that the much-anticipated launch of Apple Maps has turned into a fiasco for the company. In the days following the release of iOS6 last Wednesday, we’ve seen myriad reports of issues ranging from the merely cosmetic (inelegant rendering of satellite display images) to the more significant: misdirection, misplaced pins, and missing content. I myself was routed into a nearby residential neighborhood instead of the Trader Joe’s a couple of blocks away, the very first time I tried out the new app’s voice navigation feature.

Yet there’s little doubt Apple will buff out this particular blemish with time. The company has a history of dexterously managing PR problems, not to mention iterating its way out of wrong turns in product design. Black marks like the “antennagate” episode that accompanied the release of the iPhone 4 in 2010 have receded into the past, thanks in large part to Apple’s concerted effort to address complaints, fix bugs, and keep users happy.

This is not to undercut the significance of the issue or underestimate the work it will take to turn today’s Apple Maps crisis into yesterday’s news. When it comes to local search, Google has a seven-year head start and a huge operation devoted to maintaining the accuracy of its maps, not to mention a core competency with large data sets and a business model centered on serving up useful information. Apple has a long, difficult road ahead – or some aggressive partnership deals to strike – before it will come close to an equivalent offering.

On the other hand, 100 million people have already installed iOS6, no doubt due in part to the ease of upgrading via iCloud. That’s a whopping 25% of the 400 million iOS devices Apple has sold. And the iPhone 5 is poised to become the company’s biggest seller yet. With the shaky release of Maps, Apple has just bought itself a truly massive upgrade project, one that is already behind schedule, with 100 million new users clamoring for better service. No wonder there are reports that Apple has begun feverishly recruiting former Google Maps staff. Surely this is only one of the more newsworthy aspects of some big plans that must now be getting underway.

The interesting part will be seeing exactly how the company chooses to address the gap in expertise that led to the current sub-par product. A big acquisition of talent or technology seems likely.

All of this means that Apple Maps is likely to get a lot better, and soon. Apple has the resources to respond favorably to this crisis and it certainly has the motivation. The interesting part will be seeing exactly how the company chooses to address the gap in expertise that led to the current sub-par product. A big acquisition of talent or technology seems likely.

Let’s assume Apple is successful in righting the ship – not, perhaps, matching Google point-for-point, but at least delivering a satisfactory product on the data side, which is likely what the company was aiming at in the first place. One could make the argument that with the addition of a viable mapping solution, iOS6 contains many of the necessary components for Apple to take an evolutionary step forward in the Social-Local-Mobile space.

It certainly seems true on paper, even if the lines are not all properly connected up yet. With iOS6, Siri gives users full access to mapping functions including turn-by-turn directions. The prominence of Yelp has increased with its integration in Maps, and users may now post tips and photos or check in to Yelp locations directly from Maps. Facebook is now melded directly into the operating system, offering many more potential opportunities for sharing local content. Most significant of all, Maps gives Apple ownership and control over the local search user experience as a whole, offering the potential for integration across virtually all features and services.

True, you can’t post to Yelp via Siri yet, even if you can post to Facebook. And conversely, Facebook plays no role in Maps — but it could. The point here is that Apple has opened up potential conduits between local and social services that were closed off before because of its reliance on a competitor. In so doing Apple has gained a significant advantage that shouldn’t be discounted — it now owns the mapping technology along with the OS and the hardware, and has the strongest of partners for social. Given the rivalry between Google and Facebook, it’s unlikely anything similar will be coming to Android devices anytime soon.

In the future, Apple could build a federated local search utility, something like the service available today that lets you search for content on your iOS device across apps and libraries. In this case, a federated service could search across Yelp, Facebook, and perhaps other local search apps and social networks, for content relevant to a local query such as “recommend a flooring contractor in San Diego,” delivering the best result available from multiple directories, review sites, and social networks, and letting Maps form the link between them.

Regardless of how it exploits the new interconnectedness of services, the new iOS offers real long-term potential for local mobile search. Perhaps the current crisis will spark faster and more daring innovation.

Damian Rollison has served as VP of Product for Universal Business Listing since 2010. He holds degrees in English from the University of California, Berkeley, and the University of Virginia, where he did graduate work at the Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities. Damian’s articles on emerging technology have also appeared in Venture Beat.

Damian Rollison is Director of Market Insights at SOCi. SOCi is the leading CoMarketing Cloud for multi-location enterprises. They empower nearly 1,000 brands to automate and scale their marketing efforts across all locations and digital channels.