Why Apple pulled the plug on Google Maps

September 23, 2012, 11:15 AM UTC

Where in Sydney is Manly? Certainly not in Balgowlah.

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.

In Saturday’s
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.”

It’s easy to poke fun at Apple’s Maps app in its current state. I’ve had my share of laughs, starting last June (see here and here), and now everybody is piling on.

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.

“Perhaps the most egregious error,” he writes, “is that Apple’s team relied on quality control by algorithm and not a process partially vetted by informed human analysis. You cannot read about the errors in Apple Maps without realizing that these maps were being visually examined and used for the first time by Apple’s customers and not by Apple’s QC teams. If Apple thought that the results were going to be any different than they are, I would be surprised. Of course, hubris is a powerful emotion.”

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:

The ridicule that Apple has suffered following the introduction of the Maps application in iOS 6 is largely self-inflicted. The demo was flawless, 2D and 3D maps, turn-by-turn navigation, spectacular flyovers…but not a word from the stage about the app’s limitations, no self-deprecating wink, no admission that iOS Maps is an infant that needs to learn to crawl before walking, running, and ultimately lapping the frontrunner, Google Maps. Instead, we’re told that Apple’s Maps may be “the most beautiful, powerful mapping service ever.”