Once-pilloried Apple Maps gets the last laugh

Since Google Maps was booted off iOS, the former first-party app shed 22 million monthly users and its reach declined three percentage points

Even after its extraordinary rough start last year, Apple Maps was used by nearly six out of every 10 U.S. iPhone owners during September, according to data recently published by metrics firm comScore.

The rival Google Maps, meanwhile, shed an estimated 22.3 million users on Android and Apple smartphones during that same stretch, signaling that on most iPhones, Apple's own mapping app has replaced that of the Cupertino, Calif. company's one-time partner.

Contrary to many headlines Monday, however, Google Maps is not fading into oblivion: With the growth in smartphone owners overall, Google Maps was still used by nearly 59 million people in September 2013, or 23.7 million more than Apple Maps.

In fact, Apple Maps' user share on the iPhone has fallen in each of the three months July, August and September, dropping from 63.7% in the first to 58.3% in the last and losing nearly 2 million users monthly in the process.

Ridiculed when it debuted in September 2012, Apple Maps was widely panned for its inaccurate maps, off-kilter points-of-interest, missing streets and addresses, distorted landmarks, omitted public transit maps, and more.

Within days of its debut on iOS 6, Apple CEO Tim Cook issued a public apology, a rarity among technology companies, Apple included. In an open letter, Cook said the company was "extremely sorry for the frustration" its Maps app had caused customers.

Although Cook got kudos from public relations experts for the apology, one industry analyst called the Maps gaffe as bad as the "Antennagate" dustup in 2010 when Phone 4 owners reported that signal strength plummeted and calls were interrupted if they touched the newly-redesigned smartphone in certain ways.

By comScore's data, Apple weathered the Maps blunder, just as it did Antennagate two years before. Of the estimated 60 million iPhone owners in the U.S. in September, approximately 35 million, or 58.3%, used Apple Maps at least once during the month.

"It was never as bad a product as people complained about," said Ezra Gottheil, an analyst with Technology Business Research. "And it got better."

comScore has not published Google Maps usage data separately for Android and iPhone, but of the combined 136.7 million Americans with a smartphone powered by either Android or iOS, 58.8 million, or 43% of the total, ran Google Maps in September.

That was down from approximately 81 million in September 2012, when Google Maps was used by 78% of all Android and iOS smartphones in the U.S.

Google released an iPhone Maps app in December 2012, several weeks after it had been replaced by Apple Maps on iOS 6. Some predicted it would soon reclaim its position as the go-to mapping app on iPhones.

But Google Maps has been at a disadvantage. As Gottheil said late last year, it was likely that most iPhone owners would stick with Apple Maps, even though it was troubled.

He stuck to that today. "Apple Maps has the advantage. It's on the first page [of the home screen], it's already on the iPhone. It's right there, it works fine. So unless you have a reason to switch, you're going to stick with Apple Maps," said Gottheil in an interview Tuesday.

"It comes down to whether what comes installed is good enough," Gottheil continued. "Most people aren't necessarily looking for the best, but for something that's just good enough."

comScore's statistics show that Google Maps' decline started almost immediately after it was pulled from iOS. By December 2012, the second month after Apple Maps' debut, Google Maps' usage share had dropped to 66% from September's 78%, and the estimated number of U.S. Android smartphone and iPhone owners who used the app fell to 74.6 million, down from September's 81 million.

The impact on Google will be significant, but not dramatic, said Gottheil, referring to its map app's decline in use on the iPhone and thus its shorter "reach" in the U.S. "Maps gives Google another way to 'map' users locations so that it can sell them ads, but it's not the only way they can pinpoint someone," said Gottheil. By signing in to Google search on an iPhone, for example, Google can -- with the user's permission -- track their location.

"What is important is that Google no longer has the leverage over Apple," Gottheil said, because Apple has brought that crucial part of the mobile experience in-house.

First-party app advantage is nothing new: It made Microsoft's Internet Explorer (IE) browser a powerhouse on Windows. But Apple Maps' success hammers home the idea that third-party software, even from the largest developers, has a tough time supplanting, as Gottheil called it, "good enough" apps.

That doesn't bode well for Microsoft, which has declined to offer a native app of its Office productivity suite for Android tablets or the iPad, only to see both Google and Apple provide first-party alternatives in Quickoffice and iWork.

Not everything has gone Apple's way with maps lately, however. According to comScore's data, Apple Maps' use has slipped since July, from an estimated 36.9 million then to 35 million in September, the most recent month for which comScore has released information. Since July, the portion of U.S. iPhone owners who have used Apple Maps at least once each month has dropped from 63.7% in July to 62.4% in August and then to 58.3% in September.

But those declines have not been matched by a corresponding increase in Google Maps use. Just the opposite. In September, about 58.8 million U.S. smartphone owners used Google Maps at least once; in July, the number was 61.1 million.

It's unclear what drove the dips -- comScore makes public just a fraction of its total dataset -- but it's possible that Android smartphone and iPhone owners are using other mapping apps, or simply using all such apps, including Google Maps and Apple Maps, less frequently.

During the same July-September span, the number of Americans who owned an Android or iOS smartphone grew from 132.3 million to 136.7 million.

Gregg Keizer covers Microsoft, security issues, Apple, Web browsers and general technology breaking news for Computerworld. Follow Gregg on Twitter at @gkeizer, on Google+ or subscribe to Gregg's RSS feed. His email address is gkeizer@computerworld.com.

See more by Gregg Keizer on Computerworld.com.

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This story, "Once-pilloried Apple Maps gets the last laugh" was originally published by Computerworld.

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