It’s All Local: Why Apple Has to Get Maps Right

As the New York Times noted this morning, Apple’s initial iOS6 foray into mobile maps has been greeted with a thumbs down by iPhone 5 reviewers, who prefer the polished Google Maps experience that was the prior default.

But maps –and by extension, local — are strategically important to Apple’s future. You can bet Apple will push hard to get them right. This is no Ping-like exercise, where Apple launches something and then discontinues it.

Apple first signaled its interests in maps in October 2009 with its purchase of PlaceBase – an API company that let developers map locations and services with pushpins.

Where can Apple go with maps – and for that matter, Google, Amazon, Microsoft/Nokia, Yahoo and AOL? Our take on maps is that they’re part of a tandem with data, and the integration of maps, geo fencing techniques, proximity search, and data such as public transit info and listings creates rich opportunities for targeted advertising (“Mapvertising”) and services.

Maps, of course, have come along way from simple store locators, which were the first online application. Just as store locators today are widely integrated with listing data, coupons and other information, you can expect to see the same trajectory in other segments. Deal mapping, for instance, has already had an impact with such companies as The DealMap (now owned by Google), 8Coupons and Bargain Babe LA making it easy to see where the deals are.

Other map concepts have been out there as well, including public transit maps (HopStop), garage maps, jogging maps (Trails.com) and wedding maps (weddingmapper.com.) With the rise of mobile, the key is that they not only provide citywide vertical info for a number of localities (i.e. Zillow maps), but also provide national seamlessness.

It has been noted that maps are the top part of the data pyramid and that if you can map it, everything else is easy. That’s probably true. It’s also true that some of the map centric activity has been premature or out of context. Some of the map-centric directories, ad networks and map-centric SEO efforts have been a little ahead of their time, and also, not always easy enough to use.

MapQuest’s efforts to monetize as a directory showed promise but wasn’t an instant hit. More recently, ABC News got rid of its interesting-but-unessential iPad app, which featured a spinning globe of news stories.

Despite some false starts, Apple has figured out that it has to be in the middle of maps to compete in the next generation of mobile services. We’re excited about Apple’s validation of the power of mapping in local online media and commerce, and expecting to see great progress in short order.

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