Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Google announces that it is scared of Apple Maps

As mentioned earlier, Google held a press event this morning to talk about the "next dimension of Google Maps", with a timing that is clearly intended to pre-empt Apple's expected mapping announcement next week. The first part of the talk was given by Brian McLendon, and included both some interesting history and some very interesting information on how Google creates and maintains its map data. That confirmed a number of things I'd suspected but which I hadn't heard Google discuss openly before. There was a very interesting screen shot showing the amount of data of various types that they capture from their street view cameras. And there were a number of interesting statistics about the amount of data they have captured and how that has grown.

So far there doesn't seem to be a recorded version of the event on youtube, I will post a link if and when this appears. Update: at the moment the original (unlisted) live recording is here, it starts 30 minutes in (thanks to Rob Booth). Update 2: what seems to be the official post-event recording is now here (incidentally I checked and they edited out the bit where the Android application crashed in the live broadcast :) ... the clue is at 44:08 where he says "here we are again" and we hadn't been there before in this version!).

A key aim of this section was obviously to convey to non-geo-geeks how much work it is to create and maintain map data - to position people to ask some of the right questions of Apple about their data coverage, accuracy, etc when they launch next week. And it did a pretty good job of that.

However, when it came to the substance of the announcements, they were fairly slim, in my opinion - certainly not enough to justify the heavy hype ahead of time. There were three main announcements:
  • Google Maps for Android will work offline, letting you download a predefined area ahead of time. This is certainly a useful feature, but nothing new. There have been dozens of applications that have worked offline for years - OffMaps is a long time favorite of mine, which I reviewed on my blog back in July 2009. And a week or so ago when I was driving around the south of Spain on vacation, I used iGo on my iPad, which has offline navigable data for all of western Europe (and versions for other parts of the world). Even Google Maps for Android could download routes offline back in late 2010. So having Google Maps available offline is nice, but something where they're playing catchup.
  • The Google Street View camera can now be carried in a backpack weighing 40 pounds. So the hardware is getting smaller, well duh! It's still some way from being practical for consumers though. So really no big news. Now if somebody announced that you could contribute to a crowdsourced street-view-like model with just a smart phone, that would be interesting news! (I wonder who might be a good candidate to provide that?!)
  • Google showed a new capability to have cool looking 3D models of buildings, which will be available at some point in the future (later this year for some cities, but not much in the way of specifics). This was cool, but looked remarkably similar to technology that C3 had two years ago. C3 is one of the companies that Apple acquired, and which will presumably form a key element of what they announce next week. Here's a video of the C3 technology on an iPad at CES in January 2011:

You can compare this with a similar Google video posted today:

So all in all the Google announcements were just about them playing catch up with things that have been around for a couple of years. The pre-announcement of the 3D model capabilities is very obviously to defuse the expected Apple announcement. As I said on twitter right afterwards, I was rather underwhelmed in the end, and most of all left with the impression that Google is worried about what Apple is about to announce.

Tom MacWright put it more concisely on Twitter, saying:
Google announces that it is very, very scared of next week.
Now don't get me wrong, Google is the market leader and Apple has everything to prove. As Google discussed in the first part of their event, and those of who have been in the geo industry for a while know only too well, there are some difficult challenges in creating and maintaining geospatial data, and it will be interesting to see how Apple has chosen to approach some of these challenges. Showing some sexy 3D models for one or two cities only scratches the surface. I also think it's unlikely that Apple will provide a web based platform for applications like Google has, so they're only addressing certain aspects of their market.

But nevertheless it's interesting to see the market leader in the space acting so scared. But I suppose I'd be concerned too even if I was the size of Google, if I knew I was about to lose 250 million users or so when iOS 6 comes out, and had somebody with more money than the US Treasury about to stomp into my market. We definitely live in interesting times in the geospatial industry, and the competition between Apple and Google will surely be good in pushing them both to do even better things.

Tomorrow I'll post some more detailed thoughts on what Apple is likely to offer, and some of the challenges they need to address. Update: see my predictions here.

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