Apple, Google and the map wars

About a year ago, founder Fred Lalonde tweeted about Apple secretly acquiring the company that made Pushpin, a mapping API his company was using:


That company was Placebase, as described by its CEO Jaron Waldman in this video two years ago:


Map-tile checkers game

Most Cupertino watchers saw in Apple’s Placebase acquisition an opportunity to kick another Google property off its mobile devices. Unfortunately, Placebase is a dataset integrator over maps, not a provider of actual map tiles, of which there are only a few independent ones left in the world.

In 2007, for example, Nokia bought Navteq for $8.1 billion and TomTom paid Tele Atlas NV €2.6 billion in 2008. Mobile being the next frontier in mapping, Yahoo and Nokia announced yesterday a partnership where Navteq will provide Yahoo’s map and navigation services globally. Despite all this market activity, the most popular service still remains Google Maps.

While Google Maps was squarely aimed at consumers at its introduction in 2005, Placebase took a different route by integrating public and private datasets over data tiles targeting more sophisticated business applications. Waldman told GigaOm two years ago:

Google Maps is great for consumer usage, but we are making it easy for large companies to take our Maps API, customize it and then use it. We are being used for real estate, fleet tracking and traffic.

One of those white-label partners that used Pushpin APIs was PolicyMap, which has a great demo section showing how Placebase layers datasets over maps:


Mapping the battle

Google’s declaration of war across Apple’s entire product line on the eve of WWDC and Apple’s rejection of Google Latitude location-aware mobile map app from the App Store last year sets the stage for a number of intriguing possibilities for how Apple might use Placebase:

  1. Apple may swap out Google from its Maps app on iPhones/iPads with another map data provider. There have been persistent rumors about Apple and Microsoft negotiating Bing search and map data services. (Google Maps does have some serious accuracy issues which the company will attempt to correct in a year-long effort starting this summer). While Google-to-Microsoft switch is somewhat unlikely in that Apple has already invested quite a bit of time integrating Google map services and renewed that effort with even better integration in the recently shipping iPads, all that was before the virulent anti-Apple crusade displayed at Google’s I/O developer conference last week.
  2. Apple also has the option of getting map tiles from other companies like MapQuest, the granddaddy of mapping services now owned by AOL or even the outright purchase of a map/navigation company like TomTom, as a low-ROI but defensive move. Placebase layers on top of raw map-data would abstract a new underlying service so that users may not even notice it (unless, of course, there are performance, accuracy or capability issues). Still, like online search, it’s not that easy to swap out a popular Google service without an equal or better one.
  3. Apple may continue to get Google map tiles over which it can graft increasingly more sophisticated and useful location services through the Placebase services. This would further differentiate Apple’s Maps app from Google offerings on Android and buy Apple more time to figure out how to disentangle itself from its Google dependencies.
  4. Perhaps Apple’s interest in Placebase was narrower and it simply bought talent to implement ancillary services like its Places features in iPhoto, iMovie, Aperture and potentially new apps yet to be introduced.
  5. Apple may have bought Placebase for its APIs which it may announce as part of an extended iPhone OS 4 framework next week at WWDC or later. This would give both Apple and App Store developers pervasive ability to integrate map/location services in a broad range of applications from advertising to marketing to analytics to social games. Rumored social networking apps like iGroups that recently surfaced in patents indicates Apple may indeed be getting serious about location-based infrastructure.
  6. Apple already has several patents covering macro-level location-based advertising/marketing and micro-level Near Field Computing exchange of identity/financial data for secure, instant and paperless payments. Placebase APIs could act as the visual underpinnings for the discovery of such services.
  7. Let’s also remember that Apple recently bought Siri which provides a dynamic framework to parse text and voice, breaking it down to actionable components to form complex searches from participating data providers. Spoken queries like “I want to see {A} nearby {B} only if it has {C}” can become far more intelligent if Siri and Placebase can neatly interweave to search/navigate/notify over Placebase data layers and use the familiar map interface for display.

Digital maps, once a wondrous novelty that started with Google Maps on the desktop, are no longer a mere destination app on mobile devices. Mapping frameworks are beginning to be tightly integrated at the OS level and maps are becoming primary UI conduits to ever more sophisticated location-based services. Apple’s acquisition of Placebase was an affirmation of that reality and, hopefully, we’ll get to see the early results next week.

18 thoughts on “Apple, Google and the map wars

  1. I think this is among the most significant information for me. And i’m glad reading your article. But should remark on few general things, The web site style is ideal, the articles is really nice : D. Good job, cheers

  2. I don’t think it matters how many innovations Apple can muster in the next few years. If it’s a success, Google would always want a piece of that pie, and nowadays Google is even faster than Microsoft when it comes to copying.

  3. Well, after SPJ spoke today at allthingsd it would seem that apple is sticking with google for services. And google has been doing some smoothing over ahead of this and wwdc. Google isn’t buying iPhones I suppose, but there are planning on more macs. I wonder if the deal for search and maps has changed any over the last week or so, probably.
    Maybe Apple looks at it this way… Somebody is going to occupy the space google is filling right now – so don’t worry too much.
    Anyway -your 3,5,6,7 are probably all spot on. SPJ says apple is not entering search. But this wouldn’t be search as we currently know it.

  4. TeleAtlas and Navteq are not the source of data, they are simply aggregators of data from many custodians, including national and state level agencies, around the world. They do varying levels of complimentary data capture and value adding eg. sign and lane capture and integration, to create reasonable quality navigable datasets, which they onsell.

    Below them in the data supply chain sit many layers of aggregators and value adders, right back to the surveyors who bang pegs in the ground and wander around with a GPS.

    The data supply chain is evolving to permit more direct, easier access to data back “at source” (or at least a step or three before it hits Navteq & co). Navteq and TeleAtlas have two key offerings:
    1. Convenience – data can be licensed and obtained via the one channel for large tracts of the globe;
    2. Value add – particularly relating to navigable datasets, these companies do a huge amount of work to make navigation work well. So much so that in some cases it’s debatable whether their output is subject to derived data licenses!

    Google & Microsoft provide data value add, and services based on the data. They are steadily improving their value adding capability to a point where they can and do bypass TA and Navteq and do it themselves. Motivations include ability to deliver a differentiated dataset/service, or to bypass restrictive licensing conditions.

    Anyone who doesn’t see the ROI in the value add and services of these companies can set up the required data supply agreements to bypass them to get hold of (relatively) unimproved data. The infrastructure to do what the big data guys do is becoming more accessible and commonplace, the raw data quality is improving, and geospatial data and service standards are making things easier. Apple could conceivably do it themselves.

  5. You can set up your own tile serving infrastructure using the free data from . Various technical instructions:

    Data quality is variable, and comes in patches, but in general it’s improving as more people get involved (Have you contributed in your area yet?)

    The project is not-for-profit and will benefit from more people running tile servers. So please, take the free data and experiment!

  6. Outside the USA and a few countries in Europe, Google Maps is pretty bad, is missing a lot of data, has no StreetView data and on mobiles they’ve no turn-by-turn navigation and you can’t side-load maps onto your mobile, instead relying on an internet connection. It’s expensive and slow.

    Nokia’s Ovi Maps on the other hand can side-load maps from your PC/Mac onto an SD Card and has navigation for 70 countries. It’s great for travellers as you can pre-load maps onto your phone for an entire country before going there so no roaming data charges. Ovi Maps ships free on every Nokia S60 handset – that’s 24 million a quarter and climbing – more in a quarter than Apple and HTC ship in a year. It’s on smartphones costing sub $100 that are increasingly being bought in countries that can’t afford the iPhone or Nexus One. That’s why Yahoo are using Ovi Maps – it’s bigger than Google, especially outside the USA. Also they get to put Yahoo Mail on really cheap S40 ‘dumbphones’ in developing countries where Nokia’s Ovi Mail service has been some success.

    It’s really easy to see everything in terms of companies in Silicon Valley if you’re sat in the USA. Nokia and Yahoo I think are playing a longer game.

  7. Entire OpenStreetMap database is both open and free; I believe that the days of commercial map data supply being profitable are limited. Even now you could use Google’s map interface and tweaked to serve OpenStreetMap tiles. The data is already better than commercial in some places (Germany and Haiti are two examples) –

  8. The NavTeq deal showed just how much map companies were really worth. Nikia Has mostly given up on selling map info and are now providing it to their phone customers for free. It barely generates enough profit to cover its operating costs. And NavTeq is the Cadillac of map companies. Most iPhone users are probably not even aware that Maps On iPhone is Google driven so moving to Navteq could happen. Especially if that eases some of the patent friction happening recently. Nikia needs money and Apple wants to cut Google down a notch or two. Currently, geographies where Nokia does well vs where Apple is doing well don’t overlap completely. In fact there is a fair bit that doesn’t overlap. Maybe enough that Apple and Nokia might be able to make it work and still compete. With Google there is currently 100% overlap and deals don’t make as much sense. Just a thought.

  9. “Digital maps, once a wondrous novelty that started with Google Maps on the desktop,”

    I’m pretty sure MapQuest was there first.

  10. Mapquest doesn’t have their own maps. They purchase data from the same people Google is/was purchasing from, NavTeq (Nokia) and Tele Atlas (TomTom). Google’s street view cars have been building out their own Map data and you’ll see that at least most of North America is now using the new data.

    TomTom looks like it can be picked up “on the cheap” all things considered. They’re primed to be acquired for less than they acquired Tele Atlas, given the Euro exchange rate and their current stock value. It would be a great long-term move on Apple’s part as I’ve proposed in the past.

  11. “Digital maps, once a wondrous novelty that started with Google Maps on the desktop …”

    I didn’t think Google Maps started “digital maps on the desktop”?

    Mapquest (as you note) started the maps-over-the-web explosion, and for at least a decade before that desktop mapping software (from on a CD) were a pretty popular genre (not sure who started that).

    But you’re right: I too am curious to see Apple make the most of that acquisition (and others like Lala and Siri).

    • Before Gmail nobody really cared much about digital maps. Its fluidity inside a browser window was an eye opener, both technically and UX wise. (And I used ‘desktop’ as in ‘not-mobile’.)

  12. Not a word mentioned about ESRI? That says a lot. It’ll be interesting to see how good its new iPhone API is coming up. Google will be dumb to drop the partnership with Apple on this, who brought a lot of innovation to Maps when before that desktop focused software makers had no idea how maps should work on mobile with touch.

    What does this mean for Mapkit? Apple may ultimately provide more of a framework for consuming map tiles from various sources and integrating location data on top of them. I doubt we willl see the fruit of the Placebase purchase until they’ve evolved it to another level. I hope mapkit does for maps what webkit has done for the browsers.

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