Market Insight

Apple takes wrong turn with Maps

September 25, 2012

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  • As part of iOS 6, Apple introduces its own Maps application, replacing the original mapping solution provided by Google since the launch of the first iPhone.
  • By doing so, Apple is recognising the extreme importance of location and mapping services for a mobile platform.
  • The company appears willing to break with its traditional mode of operation and launch an unfinished service, in order to have its own maps on the iOS platform.
  • Apple relies on in-house capabilities, through acquisitions, and a host of third party developers to make the app work and so hopes to differentiate from Google's Maps in Android and Nokia's Maps in Windows Phone.

Apple's Maps application starts off on the wrong foot - the app's icon indicates a left turn off the side of a bridge on to Interstate 280! There are numerous issues with the product's performance, including: satellite images that make bridges look like disaster areas and areas that are obscured by clouds, inconsistent display of traffic information, points of interest that are often out of date or are marked in the wrong location, incomplete road name labels, no highlighting of many major roads, city labels that have moved off target, and searches for addresses or locations that often lead to inaccurate or no results.

However, the introduction of Apple Maps signals multiple things for the mobile industry and Apple in particular. First, having location-based services integrated in a mobile platform is now a standard feature of modern smartphones. Both Android and Windows Phone include rich maps and navigation solutions for free. Further, it is essential that the platform provider is able to control this aspect of the mobile experience in a similar fashion to other aspects of the platform because maps are a foundation for mobile commerce, events, and mobile advertising business models.

Secondly, Apple had to release its own mapping application to be in control of its own destiny in location-based services and all the related business opportunities. The company obviously deemed it so important that iOS 6 launched with a weak product. Apple hopes to encourage developers to build on its new platform and 'crowd source' updates to incorrect information from iOS 6 Maps users. If Apple had run new Maps and old Google-based Maps in parallel, the new platform would not have benefitted from the full weight of iOS developers and users because many would have continued to use the old app.

Apple normally ensures that user experience, ease of use, design and functionality are paramount in their decision making process around new products. But iOS 6 Maps is clearly an exception to this guideline.  While Apple has stated that its Maps product should be viewed as a 1.0 version release and that it will improve over time, this is usually Google's strategy, not Apple's.

With Google and Android, the "beta" label attached to most of its services indicates just that - a service which will see frequent updates, improvements or in some cases closure or discontinuation of a feature. Apple usually presents a premium product with premium features; with Maps the iPhone maker will have to adopt Google's modus of doing business.

The version of Apple Maps, as released in iOS 6, is unusual in another respect. Apple's use of crowd sourcing to fix errors and omissions in iOS6 maps is a rare approach for Apple. Normally, this is reserved for Google, as it is known to rely heavily on user contributions for business listings and corrections, for example.

For its application, Apple is relying on partners like TomTom, waze, AND, DigitalGlobe, Localeze, Factual, Yelp and Urban Mapping, among many others. Most of the partners have successful applications or are supplying automotive OEMs or other navigation providers with their data, without generating nearly as much negative feedback as Apple was able to garner over the last few days.  To supply automotive OEMs, a highly reliable navigation product is essential. Both TomTom and Nokia's NAVTEQ provide their map data and location content to automotive OEMs, which would not accept map data of the quality on display in Apple Maps. But Apple has taken the data and expertise from those suppliers and combined it into a product that has more rough edges than those supplier's own products. This is the opposite of Apple's intent and is at the heart of their current problems.

It's clear that Apple's issues lie within the company and not solely with its partners, because TomTom's own solution is very different to the Apple Maps app which in part uses TomTom data. TomTom's application in Apple's App Store has ratings anywhere from 2.5 to 5 stars, depending on regional version.  TomTom is currently valued at under $900 million, small change for Apple to bring a full location platform in house. Remember, Nokia spent $8 billion on the NAVTEQ acquisition in 2007.

Apple has a few options to resolve the quality issues quickly. Fixing all the many problems in-house will likely take months because there are so many changes needed. Alternatively, Apple could acquire one of its suppliers, for example TomTom or Waze, and then offer its app as the default navigation application on iOS6 . Or, more likely, Apple could strike an exclusive licensing deal and offer a third party app for free or at a discounted rate to unhappy iOS6 users for a limited time. The precedent to this measure is Apple's response to the iPhone 4 antenna teething problems. In 2010, Apple offered early purchasers a free bumper case to mitigate the issue.

Waze also has useful capabilities for Apple. The company has been gaining users at an increasing rate; this helps Waze improve its maps and traffic information because of its use of crowd sourcing. The more users, the better the traffic data. Wave has significantly improved the quality of its service over the last few years as a result.

Apple will face an uphill battle trying to convince users and developers alike that it can make quick improvements to the existing application - at faster than usual intervals. If Apple is unable to do so it will hurt its own strategy and increase the number of calls for Google Maps to return - the last thing on Apple's mind.

For the first time, both Android and Windows Phone have a clear, unarguable, advantage over a key feature of Apple's iPhone. At the moment Apple Maps is simply not as good as its smartphone competition. In the short term, we expect no impact on Apple iPhone sales because in all other respects the iPhone is a very strong product and demand is extremely high. But if Apple does not resolve the many problems with iOS6 Maps quickly, IHS expects the weakness of Apple Maps to hinder Apple's iPhone sales from early 2013.

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