Apple-Google mapping split-up: Easier said than done

There's been a lot of buzz of late over the concept of a widening Google-Apple split, what with the various overlapping board members departing and the growing iPhone-Android rivalry. In the past few days, this rumor's center has moved specifically to the iPhone's Maps application, which is based entirely on Google Maps. (Most folks up on their tech know this, but you could be forgiven for missing it; the Google logo floats subtly at the lower left of the screen, but that's the only time the company is mentioned.) Of course, it never does for one giant corporation to feel completely dependent on another, so we can imagine Steve Jobs comically fuming at the little Google logo, and plotting an independent Apple-made maps app that will result in glorious freedom. And bits of data have pointed in that direction, including Apple's acquisition of mapping company PlaceBase last month and their recent job ads for members of the iPhone OS maps team.

There's only one problem with this concept, which is that setting up you own worldwide street-level mapping program involves a staggering amount of effort. Particularly problematic is the gathering of the actual nuts-and-bolts geographic data, which is so difficult that Google itself only managed to do to its satisfaction last month -- previously they had used datasets from Tele Atlas, and from Navteq before that. It was only when it had its own independent street data that Google could begin offering true turn-by-turn navigation applications, as the terms under which it had acquired the data from those other companies precluded such use, which would have cannibalized their deals with GPS manufacturers.

Thus, assuming Apple has not been secretly compiling its own database of geographic data, the company would be no closer to the Holy Grail of Phone-based Mapping, a built-in turn-by-turn GPS, if it ditched Google for its Maps app. It's certainly possible that Apple will be making a new deal with Navteq or Tele Atlas out of sheer competitive disgruntlement, but it seems like a lot of trouble for not a lot of return. My guess is that all these new mapping hires are going to be building new features into the Maps app, but that its evolution will be incremental, and that Google Maps' data will remain at its heart.

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