Apple, Amazon lead brave new world of online maps - but why now?

The world of maps becomes quite competitive

Arguably the biggest news to come out of Apple's WWDC preview of iOS 6 this year was the word that the company would develop its own mapping software, ending its long-standing practice of using Google Maps for navigation on the iPhone.

MORE IOS 6: iOS 6 arrives: Its 16 key new features

MORE AMAZON: First look: Amazon's new tablet lineup

Now, Amazon has followed suit in ditching Google Maps in favor of an in-house solution powered by map data from Nokia, and social network Foursquare opted to switch to Open Street Map earlier this year.

The reasons for these moves seem relatively simple - Apple and now Amazon compete ferociously with Google in the smartphone and tablet markets, and Foursquare didn't want to pay Google's API fees for Maps access. (The company has since sharply reduced its API prices.)

In the cases of Apple and Amazon, however, one question remains - why now?

According to IDC program vice president Karsten Weide, it's simply a matter of Apple and Amazon having advanced far enough technologically.

"Maps are very hard to do well," he says. "For one, there are only two providers of global, navigable mapping data, Nokia's Navteq and TomTom's Teleatlas."

Companies either need to make a deal with one of those or create their own set of geographical data, which is a time-consuming and expensive process.

"Secondly," added Weide, "Creating mapping software that deserves the name 'consumer product' is hard to do. [User interface and user experience] is just hard to get right, [especially] on small form-factor devices."

It's something Apple is apparently struggling with, at the outset. Initial reviews haven't found iOS6's maps to be particularly impressive, and the CEO of one of Apple's partner firms slammed the decision to go with TomTom as a source for mapping data in an interview with Business Insider.

It's believed that Google wants to release its own Maps app for iOS 6 - the company provided an alternative YouTube app for iOS after Apple got rid of the official one - but there has been no official confirmation of this yet.

Amazon's alternative, which is still in beta, is powered by Nokia's map data and will be offered - like Google Maps - as a full-scale API to developers, presumably in the hope of creating a development community comparable to that of the older product. Amazon hasn't provided details of an end-user app yet, but a Webmonkey report said that the API looks very similar to Google Maps.

Email Jon Gold at jgold@nww.com and follow him on Twitter at @NWWJonGold.

Read more about software in Network World's Software section.

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