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Reality Absorption Field: Navigating the return of Google Maps

When Apple's exiting iOS software chief forestalled the continuation of Google Maps as the default iOS location source in favor of the long-in-development Apple Maps, the crowd responded with its typical mix of adulation for the exceptional presentation quality of the forthcoming software and capabilities as well as a bit of schadenfreude for Google. There, that oughta show 'em to copy and, allegedly according to Steve Jobs, seek to kill the iPhone. But when Apple Maps arrived with its host of inaccuracies and surreal distortions, some of those who sought to kick Google on its way out the door were eager to welcome the search leader back through it. The question on many of their minds is whether it will happen.

Differing reports offer inconsistent accounts of how much advance notice Google had or should have anticipated regarding the replacement of Google Maps in iOS. The displaced provider has publicly said that it wants to have Google Maps available everywhere. Even less surprisingly, Google chairman Eric Schmidt has said that he thinks Apple should have stayed with Google's solution. Consistent with this, we've seen reports that Google is not only working on a new iOS app, but that it includes features that the old one lacked, principally free voice-guided turn-by-turn directions.

Google, however, can't commit to when, if ever, a new Google Maps app might appear on iOS because Apple gets the final say on its approval. The grappling between the two companies over the Google Voice app that lacks the dialer integration of its Android counterpart became public prior to that app's eventual approval. Google seemed more confident about the imminent iOS approval of its Chrome browser announced at its Google IO developer conference this summer. It has become one of the most popular free apps even though it uses a slower JavaScript engine than the one available to Safari.

If Google is doing its part to bring its Maps back to iOS, then, will Apple let it in? A stronger current of decisions indicates that it will. While Apple once blocked apps that replicated the functionality of its own integrated apps, such third-party offerings are now commonly accepted and iOS is richer for it. Prior to iOS 6, Apple had allowed apps that provide free turn-by-turn direction such as the offbeat Waze and the unpalatable MapQuest in addition to a host of offline navigation apps from dedicated hardware brand refugees such as TomTom, Magellan and Navigon.

And last week, Apple let in two more navigation applications that shift the competitive location landscape on iOS. The first, Telenav Scout, has been available on the platform for some time, but has finally incorporated free voice guidance for its turn-by-turn directions. The second, Nokia Here, comes from a company that is another location-based information rival to Apple and Google. The bottom line is that, at this point, Apple would face a lot of pressure were it to reject a new Google Maps app while it would have little apparent reason to do so.

But that doesn't mean returning to the world the way it was rendered before iOS 6. A Google Maps app would have to be downloaded, giving it a far less prominent presence than being the default option once afforded it. Apple Maps, on the other hand, are continuously improving as more consumers adopt it. And finally, Apple's favoring of default choices for many tasks means that even consumers who install and favor a new Google Maps app will likely continue to often find themselves in Apple Maps -- just as Google Voice users find it hard to avoid Apple's built-in Phone program. But for those who at least occasionally wish that Apple hadn't told Google to get out of Dodge, there will likely soon be an iOS app option it can use to make its way back.

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