Why a Standalone Google Maps App Has Already Lost

Posted on: September 24, 2012
Posted in Mobile


The app model pioneered by Apple has made us totally comfortable switching between apps as we go through different sequences quickly on our smartphones. See someone post a Tweet about a restaurant you’ve been wanting to check out? Copy the name and open mobile Safari, search for the restaurant and then click on the link to a review or click the address, which brings up the Maps app. In about 10 seconds, you’ve gone between 3 different apps and have directions to the restaurant. In mobile all of this happens in separate apps, whereas on the web, everything above would occur inside the browser.

I’ve often referred to mobile apps as “verticalized content experiences” for this reason, as users are totally comfortable with services that specialize in 1 specific use case, and they go from one verticalized content experience to another very quickly. Matt Cohler of Benchmark recently called apps remote controls for life because the most elegant ones can accomplish something profound in a few clicks.

And Maps, by the nature how we use them for harvesting offline intent, are kind of like a “universal remote control”, which in turn power many other geo-specific apps.

Think about it this way: some people go to the Maps app to start a query or find directions. But many (most?) people use maps / direction from within other apps. E.g. if you look for a restaurant on Yelp in iOS 6, it’s going to use Apple Maps as its default map view. Maybe you initially went in to the Yelp app for its rich experience/reviews/photos etc. When you click “directions to venue”, Yelp closes and the default Maps app is invoked, which is now Apple’s, not Google’s.

And one thing that has gone under the radar during this whole maps catastrophe is the fact that Apple doesn’t allow maps or other default services to be changed by the user. Simply put, there is no setting allowing users to specify the default mapping service. Coordinates / addresses will always open Apple Maps, even if Google Maps were installed. And apps that use maps (Yelp, foursquare, Uber etc) will always use the default mapping service (Apple’s).

“Always” is a little strong, as it’s technically feasible for the app developer to call a non-default service, but my contention is you will never see popular apps give the user a setting to do this. And in theory, even if developers did allow the user to control / change the default mapping service, very few people would ever change this setting. It simply doesn’t make sense to handle this on a per-app basis it’s something that makes sense from a global setting.

And it’s very clear Apple isn’t going to give users a global setting for changing important services. If you don’t believe me, think about the browser. There is no way for a user (on any version of iOS) to change the default browser from Safari to Google Chrome (if installed), for instance. When you click a hyperlink from any application, Safari will open… Apple doesn’t want to accommodate users here. It’s a way to control the platform.

Is this a technical limitation? No way. Custom URL schemes defined in iOS make it drop dead simple. Apple allows apps to register their own uniform resource identifiers (URIs) which can be invoked from other apps, and can also pass context about the action—e.g. fb://mailbox/compose opens the Facebook app and starts the compose message screen. If you want to see how this works for an application, just go ahead and open mobile Safari on your iPhone, type in Maps:// and Apple Maps will open (or Google Maps in iOS5 or lower). Or better yet, click twitter://user?screen_name=stevecheney.

These custom URL schemes are extremely powerful, as they allow apps to pass data and strings between one another. Android users are familiar with this as well, and even more flexibility exists to pass data from app to app inside Android than in iOS. People in the industry often refer to this as “fast app switching” and many apps have APIs which support this functionality. It’s fairly rudimentary, but it’s the data-interchange model that Apple has positioned for its platform, and they use it themselves liberally for deep linking to other apps.

But Apple clearly doesn’t want to give users the option of allowing apps to invoke non-default mapping / browsing apps, which would in effect bypass Apple’s stranglehold on that usage and data. It would be drop dead simple for them to allow this with a global setting—in fact, someone in the jailbreak community came up with a tweak to do exactly that for jailbroken iPhones—take a look at how the settings screen would look.

So sure Apple may allow a standalone Google Maps app in the app store (my prediction is they will with 100% certainty to avoid any anti-trust scrutiny), but the reality is Google Maps simply won’t get near the usage it’s historically seen, even if the Apple Maps product continues to wildly under-perform for years.

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