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One not-so-secret reason Apple built its own Maps for iOS 6

In the uproar over iOS 6's move to Apple's homegrown Maps service, the driving theme is user frustration (not to say outright anger). Even the most ardent apologists have to acknowledge that Maps has serious issues, and the company's critics are having a field day.

Some of the challenges may be remediable in the short term, while others may take far longer to address effectively. Apple is reportedly doing deep-dive recruiting into the fallow, contract-complete engineering pool that helped to build Google Maps in the first place. Yes, this stuff is hard.

We're going to dive into the Maps conundrum (and a little product launch from Friday) on tonight's Talkcast, so bring your suggestions, complaints and consolations. You can connect to us live here at 10pm Eastern Sunday night, or listen in after the fact.

For iOS 6 users, especially those who upgraded without realizing that Maps was changing under their feet, things are awkward. In the short term, we're seeing a lot of workarounds and substitutions for everything from Google's Street View feature (the $0.99 Live Street View app does a fine job) to transit directions (if they cover where you live, Embark's offerings are sharp and accurate) to simply going with a bookmark to the mobile version of Google Maps itself.

We're also seeing a lot of enthusiastic attribution of motives: "Apple wants to force its customers to use its own products, even when they are not as good as those from rivals," opines Joe Nocera in the New York Times. "They put their own priorities for corporate strategy ahead of user experience," suggests Anil Dash. "Apple put crapware on their most important product on purpose in order to screw a rival at the expense of users," claims Mike Elgan over at Cult of Mac. (Elgan's post suggests that Apple is obsessed with Google, but he also says that "Google+ is the Google Maps of social networks," which makes me wonder if perhaps he hasn't got some other things mixed up.)

Those assertions make for strong narratives and good, meaty, angry articles. They're forceful, and have the ring of truth. But to suggest that the only reason Apple would make this change is for the sake of forcing Google off of iOS -- punishing users in the process, without a care or a caution -- is naive and mistaken. Apple's move away from Google's maps isn't about screwing users to make a corporate political point; it's about trying to give iOS users a better maps experience in the long run.

What's the one big thing that Android devices -- since 2.0, in 2009 -- have been able to do with their maps that iOS devices, natively and without expensive third-party apps, couldn't do? Realtime, turn by turn navigation. The feature that lets you replace your $100-and-up dashboard GPS unit with only your phone and your voice, included in the box with millions of Android phones. A specific, unarguable and easy-to-market differentiating feature. Droid does; iPhone doesn't.

Why doesn't the Google-backed Maps app on iOS 5 do realtime nav? Well, as Ars Technica pointed out in June, it's simply not allowed in the Google API license agreement for Maps. Easy enough for Google to provide the feature to its own operating system (once the underlying map data licensing hurdles were cleared when it turned over from NAVTEQ data to its own geobase in the late 2000s), but third parties? Nope. This was confirmed as a constraint when developers asked the question at WWDC several years ago. No realtime nav, no vector map tiles, no way.

But, surely, Google and Apple could make a deal to get around that pesky license? Given the special relationship between the two companies? Apparently not. As iMore notes and the Wall Street Journal delves into, Google was not willing to license turn-by-turn to Apple. Perhaps Apple drove too hard a bargain; perhaps Google's team wanted more access to user data, or to bundle the Latitude find-your-pals application into the mapping suite. Some suggest that Google wanted to keep turn-by-turn as a competitive tool for Android. But Charles Arthur's assertion in the Guardian that Apple "didn't want it" regarding realtime nav appears to be unfounded. Apple wanted it; Google wouldn't give it up.

Google's role as the mapping provider for iOS was never an easy fit from a corporate perspective, but it became downright untenable when the intransigence over turn-by-turn kept the iPhone's mapping capability a generation behind the Android front line. Navigation isn't a trivial feature; getting a solid app for your driving directions can cost real money, or require an ongoing subscription. Apple's users were getting the fuzzy end of the lollipop because Apple didn't own the technology -- and that's the horse driving the cart in this case, not the other way around. If Apple can't build products that include the features users want most, they won't be insanely great, they won't delight, and they won't sell.

That's the not-so-secret reason for the change to Apple's Maps. If iPhone users couldn't do turn-by-turn directions for free, Apple surmised, at some point they would stop being iPhone users. Maybe that's a crass, commercial reason, but it's not politics; it's real features for real customers. And it's part and parcel with other Google-controlled or blocked features (voice search for Maps, requiring a Maps tile to show whenever the geocoder is used, high-quality vector Maps for Retina) that were dragging the platform behind.

None of that helps the current facts on the ground, as it were, when it comes to Maps in iOS 6, even if Apple should have leapt off long ago. In fact, users of pre-iPhone 4S devices may be extra peeved, as they don't even get the benefits of the turn-by-turn nav as they're sacrificing the data depth and accuracy of the Google infrastructure. This stuff is hard, and perhaps Apple's sin here is one of hubris -- thinking that the company had the smarts to solve several genuine problems at once, without realizing that the problems are actually that difficult.

It's unfair and unfactual to say, as Joe Nocera does, that the Maps iOS 6 situation would not have come off the tracks the way it has if Steve Jobs were still running the company. Goodness knows, hubris -- and failure -- were things Steve had plenty of experience with, as Jean-Louis Gassée points out. But what is true is that Tim Cook and his team now face the challenge of rebuilding some user trust, explaining why they chose this path, and actually fixing the Maps app without resorting to any reality distortion fields.

Thanks to Rene Ritchie for research help on this post.

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