The company's real mistake may have been not doing it years ago
FORTUNE — Unbeknownst to me, I’ve been feeding geographical information into Google’s GOOG mapping database for years — searching for addresses, sharing my location, checking for traffic jams on Google Maps. Google, for its part, has been scraping that data for every nugget of intelligence its computers can extract. Without consciously volunteering, I’ve been participating in a massive crowdsourcing experiment — perhaps the largest the world has ever seen. Who knows what I might have been teaching Google Maps if I’d been navigating the surface of the planet with an Android phone in my pocket?
Apple AAPL , by building its much-loved (and now much-missed) iPhone Maps app on Google’s mapping database, has been complicit in this Herculean data collection exercise since the launch of the first iPhone in 2007. The famous Google cars that drive up and down the byways of the world collecting Street View images get most of the attention, but it’s the billions upon billions of data points supplied by hundreds of millions of users that make Google Maps seem so smart and iOS 6’s new Maps app seem so laughably stupid.
New York Times
, Op Ed columnist Joe Nocera asks: “If Steve Jobs were still alive, would the new map application on the iPhone 5 be such an unmitigated disaster? Interesting question, isn’t it?”
No Joe, it’s not an interesting question. It’s the No. 1 cliché of the post-Jobsian era.
Besides, the decision to pull the plug on Google’s mapping database at the end of what was probably a five-year contract had to have been made while Jobs was running the company.
“Not doing its own Maps would be a far bigger mistake,” says Asymco’s Horace Dediu, who addressed the issue at length in last week’s Critical Path podcast. “The mistake was not getting involved in maps sooner, which was on Jobs’ watch. Nokia saw the writing on the wall five years ago and burned $8 billion to get in front of the problem. The pain Apple feels now is deferred from when they decided to hand over that franchise to Google at the beginning of iPhone.”
But the fact is, the company found itself in the position of feeding its customers’ priceless location information into the mapping database of its mortal enemy. That couldn’t go on forever.
Weaning itself from Google Maps will not be easy. It may be one of the hardest things Apple has ever tried to do.
If you’ve seen enough examples of the boneheaded mistakes Apple Maps is making and want to get a sense of what’s involved in correcting them, I recommend Mike Dobson’s Google Maps announces a 400 year advantage over Apple Maps.
Dobson, a former professor of geography at SUNY Albany, was Rand McNally’s chief cartographer from 1986 to 2000 and now runs a consulting service called TeleMapics.
Dobson has been fielding and answering questions from readers in the comment stream of his Exploring Local blog. It’s like a graduate seminar in cartography. I hope someone at Apple is auditing it.
UPDATE: Jean-Louis Gassée’s Monday Note has, as usual, a sensible take on the issue: