What Google Maps For iOS Tells Us About The Battle For Google’s Future

Finally, it’s here: the saviour of iOS 6, the biggest thing to hit the platform since, well, forever. Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome the one you’ve all been waiting for – it’s Google Maps!

That, of course, is a little bit of an exaggeration. There will be bigger and more important apps to hit the platform, but there will be few that have as much of an impact on the public. When an app release makes the pages of national newspapers – in print, no less – you know it’s gone well beyond the circle-jerking, gossip-laden geek blogosphere. So much for Maps being “in limbo“.

And Google Maps isn’t just a quick and dirty port of the Android version, or a lame window that just pulls in the website. Its interface actually makes the Android Maps app look like something put together by a group of part-time open source coders. If I was Phil Schiller, I’d add Google Maps to the list of apps to use for a side-by-side comparison in keynotes, showing off how much better iOS apps are.

It’s not just Maps where Google’s iOS programmers are showing up their Android colleagues. The recently released update to Gmail has had some Android users wondering if Google is neglecting them.

The fact that Google is, on one hand, creating great applications for iOS and, on the other, fighting tooth and nail for market share against it makes me wonder if the company is divided into two factions, with a battle raging between them over its future direction. On one side, there’s the group that want to promote Android as a coherent product, and beat Apple into a pulp with it. Whenever Eric Schmidt talks about Android as “winning” against Apple, or Vic Gundotra appears on stage talking about iOS representing a “Draconian future”, they’re speaking from the heart of the “Product” faction.

On the other side, there are the “Pragmatists”. These are the ones who realise Google makes its money from advertising, not directly from selling products. And creating more effective ads needs data, which it gets from people using its services. The data that Google gathers from iOS users using its maps is valuable. That data, and the more-effective ads it enables, is what makes Google its money.

To think about it another way, if you’re an Android user, you’re a Google services user almost by definition. If you’re an iOS user, you’re not — and so Google has to work harder to keep you within its ecosystem. It’s iOS apps HAVE to be really good. If they are not, there’s a decent chance that iOS users will, sooner or later, stop using Google services altogether in favour of their Apple equivalents. And that means no data, and no data means no money to keep Larry Page in rollerblades

At the moment, I think the Pragmatists within Google are in the driving seat. However, that’s not necessarily always going to be true. Having the world’s most popular smartphone operating system is a once-in-a-century opportunity, a chance for Google to break out of its services and advertising niche. There’s no doubt that the company has cast a jealous eye at Apple’s seemingly unstoppable rise, and the attendant profits being made up in Cupertino.

If the Product faction wins out, one day there will be an end to the kinds of excellent iOS apps that make the Android fans turn green with envy. But until that happens, we should all take time tomorrow to look a little smug, and show off how much better our Google apps are than theirs.

Ian has been writing about Apple since Michael Spindler was the great hope of the company and Newton was the last word in intelligent assistants. He lives in London, herding cats for a living.