Apple, Google, and Mobile Maps

We all love Google Maps. Google pours a lot of effort and money into making their maps the best, but they’ve gone way beyond what users need and expect from maps. Google Earth, Street View, satellite mapping, 3D mapping, it’s all incredibly cool stuff.

But in many ways, it’s overkill. If the job to be done is navigation, then all you need are good vector maps and a good routing algorithm, traffic prediction, and an up-to-date POI database. Street View is great for previewing the location you’re going, but it’s not necessary while you’re on the road.

As cool as this stuff is, it’s expensive. Taking satellite photos of the planet costs a lot of money. Driving cars down every street costs even more money. It’s not just a one-time investment; you need to redo all this work every few years. It’s a significant, ongoing investment.

Keeping the POI database and vector maps up to date isn’t that expensive, because the data is available from free sources. There is no free source for satellite or street view imagery.

Google has been doing all this work to secure local search advertising. I think. It’s not really obvious, but it’s the only explanation I think we have for why Google might be pouring all this effort into something that doesn’t have a clear monetization strategy.

But for Google to have a shot at making money off these maps, they need users to be using them to make decisions that Google can monetize. If you’re away from home and you pull out your mobile device to find a restaurant or a business, that’s a key point at which the service you use to find that information has an opportunity to auction the results to advertisers.

Mobile advertising is the fight over who gets to serve the user at this key point.

Unfortunately for Google, the users who are using their phones to make purchase decisions on mobile are mostly iOS users. Android is killing iOS in number of devices, but most metrics show that way more iOS users are using mobile data than Android users. iOS is the best platform for mobile advertising right now.

There are two points I want to make here.

The first is that there’s really not much incentive for Apple to make Maps more than good enough. I don’t think Apple will try to have current satellite maps or street view to the extent that Google does, because the ROI just isn’t there. It’s not helping the purchase decision, and Apple doesn’t do things just because they’re cool.

And the second point is that Google needs to change this.

Amazon did something interesting with the Kindle series. They recognized that making it easy for users to use them to search and buy products meant they needed mobile data access, and so Amazon made an arrangement with the carriers that they would foot the data bill for their devices. Amazon profits from the content sales, and the user doesn’t need to pay for the data, just the content.

Could this work for Maps? I think it could.

Android devices already obviously have the hardware to connect to mobile data networks, even if the users haven’t signed up for a data plan. If Google were to foot the bill for mobile map access, they’d probably have half a billion more users using their maps on the road.