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Map wars send Google in a new direction

In this photo provided by Google, engineering director Luc Vincent demonstrates how Google captures images in hard-to-reach places with a Street View Trekker at the company’s offices in San Francisco. The Street View Trekker is a fully portable camera-laden backpack. 

Associated Press

In this photo provided by Google, engineering director Luc Vincent demonstrates how Google captures images in hard-to-reach places with a Street View Trekker at the company’s offices in San Francisco. The Street View Trekker is a fully portable camera-laden backpack. 

Next week, Apple is widely expected to drop Google as the maps provider for the iPhone and the iPad. Google has provided Apple's mobile mapping system since the release of the first iPhone, but the companies aren't friends anymore. Over the past few years, Apple has purchased three mapping startups, and it has reportedly been combining their technology into a maps application that, in the words of one Apple insider who spoke to the technology website All Things D, "will blow your head off."

Is Google worried that Apple's defection will substantially reduce its user base and, consequently, the advertising revenue it gains through maps? Does the search company fear that it could lose its place as the online mapping leader, a position that has long been one of its competitive advantages?

On Wednesday, Google invited tech journalists to an event in San Francisco that was meant to show that it is not concerned at all, no way, no how. Several executives took the stage to explain the technical feats that Google performs to build its maps. They also unveiled a few upcoming features, including a system that creates beautiful 3-D images of all the buildings in the world's major metropolises, as well as a way to access Google Maps when you're not online.

The Googlers were all very cordial and friendly, and when baited by journalists into commenting on Apple's plans, they declined to take any shots at their rival.

The fact that Google scheduled this event is the best indication that it's very worried about losing its primo iPhone placement. Losing its spot on the iPhone home screen will be bad news for Google, and it's a move that will be difficult for the search company to overcome.

To Apple, mapping will always be a side deal — something it does as a way to improve the iPhone. For Google, mapping is a critical aspect of its effort to organize the world's information.

That's why, when it comes to maps, Google doesn't mess around. The firm has invested hundreds of millions of dollars in building online cartographic dominance. Not only does it have a fleet of cars that are constantly snapping photos of streets around the planet, it has a fleet of planes, too, and it has also mounted its cameras on boats, bikes and snowmobiles. Now the company's engineers have created a fully portable camera-laden backpack called the Street View Trekker that they can use to photograph places that aren't accessible to vehicles — the inside of the Grand Canyon, for instance.

Google's new 3-D imaging capabilities are also impressive. By photographing cities from multiple planes on different flight paths, the company can combine and extract three-dimensional details from flat photographs. Compared to the flat view you now see in Google Maps, the 3-D images look spectacular.

The trouble for Google is that all of its tech advances may be for naught if it is cut off from iPhone users. If Apple does drop Google as the default maps app, the search company might need to build its own separate maps app for the iPhone. And even if Apple allows Google's app in its App Store, the company will still have a hard time getting users to choose its program over Apple's native system.

Google's only option, now, is to keep investing more and more into its maps division in the hopes that, over time, customers will stick with it because it's the better option.

Map wars send Google in a new direction 06/07/12 [Last modified: Thursday, June 7, 2012 9:46pm]
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