Maps: site of an epic territorial struggle between Apple and Google | Dan Gillmor

If you upgraded your iPhone to iOS6 and got lost because of the map app, you are the collateral damage in a monopolists' war

So, iPhone users, how do you like being collateral damage?

If you "upgrade" to iOS6, Apple's latest mobile operating system, you are going to lose an essential app that was native and bundled in previous systems. What you'll get instead is, by all accounts, inferior to what's gone missing. I refer, of course, to the mapping software that Apple has cobbled together from several small-company buyouts and its own considerable, if inadequate to date, efforts to create a serious rival to the banished Google Maps.

If you are an iPhone user, you're suffering – I use that term almost in jest, as this is a classic #FirstWorldProblem, in Twitter hashtag lingo – as a consequence of a war between two corporate giants. In this particular case, your situation stems from: Apple's desire to dominate tomorrow's computing; its absolute loathing of Google; and its willingness to treat customers badly, at least in the short term, in order to achieve corporate goals.

This is nothing new in the technology world. In its heyday, Microsoft made all kinds of unilateral decisions to thwart competition, caring not in the slightest – monopolists don't have to care – that it was giving its own customers fewer and, in some cases, inferior choices. Apple has entwined its mobile customers so completely at this point that they'll tend to accept any and all abuses of this kind. Just try to read an Amazon Kindle book, which currently dominates the ebook market, on another platform. The list goes on and on and on.

It should not be surprising that Apple's mapping solution is nowhere near as good as Google's at this stage of its development. But there's reason to believe it may never be. As the Atlantic magazine's Alexis Madrigal pointed out in a deep look at the systems and people behind the Google product, this team has been doing things with enormous care and precision for many years now, and shows no sign of slowing down.

Apple has the deepest pockets in the corporate world, however, with more than $100bn in cash and a sales machine that mints billions more each month. It's spending some of that to make a competitive mapping product. Already, the production values of its app – the way it looks and feels – are better than Google's in some ways, though the details of streets and places lag far behind, with Escher-like results brightening the day of countless internet wags.

Apple is also spending some of its cash on lawyers, battalions of them around the world, suing companies that have the temerity to make Android-powered hardware. Samsung is the primary target so far. This "lawfare" is related to the map battle, because the larger strategic goal for Apple is all about controlling mobile computing and everything that relates to it. At this point, Google and its Android allies are the most serious impediment.

Maps are dashboards to incredibly valuable information and services. When Apple sends its users to Google Maps, as it did in the past, it was sending them into the Google ecosystem, where the search giant can leverage its own area of dominance: online advertising. In coming years, as we do more and more with our mobile devices, whichever company can get us to use its dashboard will have a big advantage in other areas of mobile activity, especially commerce.

I'm not fond of Apple, as I've noted here, because of its incessant, and increasing, control-freakery towards suppliers, software developers and customers. But I'd rather see it compete with its own maps than let Google utterly own the field.

Google and Apple aren't the only alternatives in the mapping universe. Nokia is among a number of companies investing in the field. I'm not fond of the notion, however, that giant corporations should control mapping in any event. So I'd like to see the great Open Street Maps project get even more traction. Its goal is to create a global, user-generated and open map database that anyone can use. If more people would take the time to add their knowledge of their local areas, it would get even better.

Meanwhile, users of Apple's mobile devices have to choose between getting the latest operating system tweaks and a native mapping app that gives reliable results. My suggestion: if you feel compelled to use iOS6, use Google or Nokia maps from the browser, realizing that you won't get the coolest features. Or stick with iOS5. Or, if you can't imagine life without doing what Apple tells you to do in every respect, be prepared to not find what you're looking for, or end up somewhere you didn't expect.

That's how life goes when one company launches its weapons at another, and you're in the line of fire.


Dan Gillmor

The GuardianTramp

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