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The return of a Google-powered maps application to the iPhone may make it easier for Apple's customers to find their way. But it will not relieve Apple of the pressure to bring its own maps service up to snuff.
The release of the new Google Maps app for the iPhone, expected in Apple's App Store on Thursday, does put to rest most of the conspiracy theorising that began when Apple stopped bundling Google's mapping service with the latest operating system for the iPhone and iPad, released in September. Apple did that because it was determined to own an increasingly critical feature of its devices, but the move seemed premature, as flaws in the company's new service led to unusual public embarrassment.
Mobile analysts wondered whether Google would create an app for the iPhone or allow Apple, its rival, to flail around without a service on its devices that so many people rely on. After all, any long-term fallout for the iPhone could, in theory, benefit Google by making its own Android operating system, which includes Google Maps, more attractive to customers.
Analysts also questioned whether Apple would approve the distribution of a Google Maps app through its App Store or hold it up, as it has some previous Google apps, to help Apple Maps.
That speculation is over. By making a high-quality maps app for the iPhone, it appears Google has put creating the biggest possible audience for its maps service above trying to undermine Apple's product. "They're more interested in owning the relationship with customers in any way they can," said Carolina Milanesi, an analyst at Gartner. Apple and Google representatives declined to discuss the app.
Marc Prioleau, a consultant on strategy, mergers and acquisitions in the maps and location services fields, said the release of the Google Maps app did not lessen the daunting challenge for Apple of making a maps service that is competitive with Google's, a process that could take years.
"I don't think it helps them, except in the sense that the iPhone stops having the thorn in its side of lacking the best mobile map app out there," he said. "The fact that it's Google means they're back to the same position."
Because of the sheer volume of data contained in Apple Maps, it is hard to judge how much Apple has improved the service since releasing it, Prioleau said.
But the bar is very high. "You can get 98 per cent of stuff on maps right, and people who use it will remember the 2 per cent you got wrong until they die," he said.
Milanesi, the Gartner analyst, said she did not think Apple had lost a significant number of sales as a result of the deficiencies in Apple Maps, because its customers had shown a willingness in the past to overlook shortcomings in maps. When Apple used to bundle the Google Maps service with the built-in maps app on the iPhone, for instance, the service lacked turn-by-turn navigation, a feature that was available on other mobile devices, including Google's.
"People were putting up with something that wasn't as good as Android," Ms. Milanesi said.
While Google is often criticised by reviewers for producing software and devices that are less polished than Apple's, the Apple Maps fiasco illustrated how Google has the upper hand in some internet services. The company has a multiyear head start on Apple in maps, and a huge team of employees dedicated to correcting the errors that can plague location data for businesses and other points of interest.
When Apple Maps came out, iPhone users quickly began identifying misplaced landmarks, incorrect addresses and other problems. The problems led to an unusual public apology by Timothy D Cook, Apple's chief executive, in which he recommended that people use competing maps services while the company improved Apple Maps.
This week, local police in Australia issued a warning about Apple Maps after assisting several motorists who were led astray in hot, desolate areas without water. Apple corrected the error on its Australian map, and the police reportedly issued a separate warning about incorrect directions from Google Maps.