How Apple is breaking free of Google's Maps (and maybe Google, entirely)

What does a Google-free Apple mapping product look like?

It’s no secret that Apple and Google have the kind of relationship that touring bands have with Ticketmaster: an aspiring artist with a thinly veiled contempt for the company that has all the right connections. Google is the search engine almost everybody wants as the default in their browser, YouTube is inescapable, Gmail is the email everybody chooses over Apple’s offerings, and Maps is the go-to source for directions and nearby listings.

But Apple has been semi-quietly going to great lengths to build its own Maps solution to replace the current Maps, which they designed on top of Google’s data and access. And when I write “great lengths,” I mean buying C3, a company that use recently declassified missile targeting schemes to create three-dimensional renderings, along with database PlaceBase and innovative mapping firm Poly9. The acquisitions didn’t go unnoticed, but there were always slight chances that other apps and features needed location services, and the word from Apple was, as always, nil.

Then Apple launched iPhoto for iPhone, and people noticed that no Google Maps were present. Indeed, the tiles that appeared in the geo-tagging features were customized by Apple, but used data from wiki-style project OpenStreetMap, among other sources. Apple wouldn’t give credit to the project until two months later, but you can see the origins in side-by-side comparisons. Now comes word from 9to5Mac that the next version of Apple’s mobile OS will drop Google Maps entirely and feature “incredible” 3D maps.

A few question marks come up, though. It’s unlikely, but will Apple allow Google to offer its own version of Maps? Will Apple’s point-to-point directions be as decent as Google Maps’, which has years and years of corrections, learning, and customer input to rely on? And once Apple has a phone and tablet where it has its own voice search, its own mapping, and almost everything else stripped of Google APIs, how will they approach Google’s presence in its Safari browser, where Google makes about $2 billion per year in mobile ad revenue, four times its take from its own Android platform.

iOS 6 is going to be Apple’s most interesting release, at least since 1.0. Even if just one app sees major changes, it’s going to mean a whole new future for Apple, one in which it makes no claim to be partnered with Google. Two huge companies, both competing to see who can predict what people want to see in their hands in the near future.

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