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With all of the grumbling these days about Apple’s new maps in iOS, one would think Apple just made the biggest mistake in its history. Yes, Apple’s maps aren’t as good as Google’s. But Google’s maps weren’t as good as the maps they replaced when Google switched away from its data providers a few years ago. It’s a switch that Apple had to make at some point for strategic reasons (much like Google had to), and now is as good a time as any.

We tend to have short memories about these things. In the long run, we will be better off for having two companies with very deep pockets investing in mapping our world.

Mapping is one of the most challenging problems out there. The underlying data are constantly changing. Businesses open and close, new buildings are added to our skylines, new roads are built, subdivisions gets added, and (sadly) in some places cities become virtual ghost towns.

The new wave of mapping will be driven by the use of smartphones as data collectors and real-time data that is published on the Internet.

The competitors in the maps and local landscape have changed a lot since the beginning of the Internet. We’ve gone through several waves:

  • In the first wave, it looked like local newspapers, CitySearch and Sidewalk were going to run away with local. In the mid-’90s, I launched one of the first online city guides and Yellow Pages at in Minneapolis. Sidewalk, Microsoft’s ill-fated attempt at local, didn’t last long at all.
  • The second wave featured Aol and Yahoo in the mapping and directory wars, along with feeble attempts by print Yellow Pages providers. Aol, by virtue of the Mapquest domain, was in a great position to win local. Both companies essentially gave up on local.
  • The third wave, starting in 2005, featured Google and Yelp. Google quickly came to own maps and Yelp (helped by strong SEO) became a key source for local reviews.
  • The fourth wave, which is beginning, pits Google against Apple. I also expect that companies with massive and engaged audiences like Facebook and Twitter will become players in this wave of local. I would also love to see American Express apply its enormous local transactional data set to the local problem, but so far I’ve seen scant indication that it will.

The map data available to us has become much richer than the road maps people once got from AAA or the initial online maps offered by Mapquest and Vicinity in the mid-’90s. Now we can see parking garages, photos, building outlines, subway stations, elevation profiles, bike routes, neighborhoods, user-generated content and real-time traffic. With one click, we can see aerial imagery or ground-level views. Google has now gotten into mapping the insides of buildings. Pull up Macy’s Union Square in San Francisco on an Android phone and you can see floor-by-floor layouts. Headed to the airport? Zoom in and you can see every store, restaurant, gate and bathroom at SFO.

The way we search has also changed. Instead of being restricted to ZIP Codes (which few know, aside from home and work), we can search by neighborhood or landmark.

Much of the credit for all of this innovation goes to Google.

Back in 2007,  Tele Atlas and Navteq, the two big map data sources, were being acquired by Google’s competitors. I met John Hanke, head of Google Maps at the time, in late 2007. I asked him what Google was going to do about the fact that two key data providers were going to belong to TomTom and Nokia. He said they had a plan but didn’t offer any details. Apparently that plan was for Google to go head-to-head with the data providers and collect its own maps and navigation data set. In October 2009, Google announced free turn-by-turn navigation for Android. (VC Bill Gurley has a great post on why the transition was necessary and how disruptive the model is.)

“I think Google, you would give them all kind of credit because they invested (no one knows the exact number) somewhere between $500 million and $1 billion to build their own maps product, intentionally getting out of the situation where they were licensing,” Gurley told me in an interview in May. “It is a competitive weapon they have that Apple doesn’t have and that Microsoft doesn’t have. … I look at Google and think, ‘My God, this is the one that has the cards in the right place.'”

In the United States, mapping providers typically started with government mapping data and then built on top of it, often by driving vans around the world equipped with sensors and cameras. Traffic data were collected by using road sensors or fleet vehicles with GPS gear installed.

With the rise of smartphones, companies with large installed bases like Google and Apple can use data collected by phones to enhance their data set. When you drive down the road with Google’s navigation app open, you are feeding data back into the system about traffic on those roads. Although Google hasn’t confirmed that it does this, it could also find out about errors in routing or new roads by using GPS trace data. If the app gives an instruction and most users ignore it, it’s a sign that something has changed. Maybe it’s a new intersection or a road being blocked off for construction. Crowdsourcing would allow Google to find out about this much faster than simply driving trucks around. (See my blog post My commute as a metaphor for user-generated content.)

Google has also created a rich set of tools for small businesses to provide up-to-date data on their businesses. (For more than you ever care to know about these tools, see my friend Mike Blumenthal’s blog, Understanding Google Places & Local Search.)

For parts of the world that haven’t been commercially viable for data providers due to small population or lack of disposable income, Google has created Map Maker, allowing users to create their own maps from scratch.

As Apple builds up its own capabilities in mapping, it will have to replicate many of these tools and processes. If Apple makes similar investments — it certainly has the cash to do so — we can expect its maps to improve. Mapping, like speech recognition, can dramatically improve as you throw more data at the problem.

The road ahead

One of the things I love about Google is that it thinks big, sometimes audaciously big. Google has moved beyond mapping the roads to modifying vehicles to be able to drive themselves on those roads.

Just imagine the data that you can collect if you control the vehicle: highly localized weather with rain sensors and thermostats, road conditions based on anti-lock brake activation, pothole locations. There are the safety benefits of not having to deal with distracted, drunk, or inept drivers. Self driving cars will also give us plenty more time to watch YouTube videos, listen to Google Music, or surf the Web.

I look forward to the day when I can purchase a self-driving vehicle. Or, better yet, the day when Google or a partner uses that technology to create a fleet of vehicles that users can call up on demand and not have to own, similar to car2go.

Closer in, I’d love to see Apple and Google add more real-time information to maps. Want to know where the hotspots in the city are now? Google and Apple can show you (in aggregate) where people are. Zoom in on a movie theater and see what’s playing. Looking for a restaurant? The map view will show you which restaurants have open tables and which are running specials. Waiting for the bus? Oh, look, there it is. Need a parking spot? There are 25 spaces in that garage.

Personalization should also be a part of the next generation of maps. The maps that you see shouldn’t be the same maps that I see. Our maps should reflect our interests and experiences.

I would love it Google or Apple solved the Applebee’s problem in local search.

(Disclosures: I’m long on Apple, American Express, and Microsoft from my time there. I’m short Aol, Facebook, and Yelp)

[Top image source: Google Maps with Street View campaign]

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