New Google Maps App: A Good Innovation That Is Bad for Innovation


A few notes on Google's new Maps app for iOS, which David Pogue calls "free, fast and fantastic" and which you should download right now if you haven't done so already:

First, it strikes me that, in addition to being a victory for people who don't want to die in the Australian wilderness, the Apple Maps fiasco (and Google's subsequent decision to fly in and save the day by making a far superior app) is first and foremost a victory for city dwellers. The main, as-yet-unexplained bug of the Apple Maps app was a total lack of in-app support for public transportation directions. And it pointed to Silicon Valley's cloistered mentality. Not being able to use the iPhone's default maps app for public transportation was fine for people who commute to Cupertino and back by car. It was less fine for the millions of people who need to navigate the buses and subways of major cities.

Second, I'm a little sad that the era of void-filling maps software is about to be over. When Apple Maps bombed, a bunch of smaller, better alternatives popped up to replace it. (I was partial to Waze, which has lots of nifty features that neither Apple's nor Google's map software has, like the ability to tell other users about police speed-checks and obstacles in the road.) Those apps became very popular during the Apple Maps fiasco, but now that a more authoritative option exists, many if not most iOS users will delete or sideline them in favor of Google's new 800-pound gorilla. That may be a good thing, in aggregate, but it will also push a number of smaller, more innovative competitors out of the spotlight.

Third, don't count Apple out of the map battle yet. Let's not forget that the primary reason Google's mapping app is (according to early reviews) much better than Apple's is because Google had a multiyear head start on compiling a massive set of location data. Apple's data set will eventually catch up. And Tim Cook fired the people responsible for the first iteration, which means he clearly isn't sitting on his heels. A year from now, we might be celebrating Apple Maps 2.0 while wondering how we ever made do with Google's half-assed attempt.