On the Timing of Apple’s Map Switch

Let’s assume the timeframes being reported about Apple and Google’s maps license are accurate. The various reports coming out yesterday and today are in general agreement in this regard, and my own sources (who in this case are, as they say, directly familiar with the matter) back this up:

  • Google found out earlier this year, before WWDC, that Apple would be switching from Google Maps to Apple’s own mapping service for iOS 6.

  • The existing deal between Apple and Google still had a year remaining at that time — that is to say, at the time Google found out. Sticking with that deal through its expiration date would have left Maps in iOS 6 exactly where they stood in iOS 5: no turn-by-turn directions or vector map tiles for Apple, no additional Google branding or Latitude/Google Plus integration (and, thus, user location data collection) for Google.

  • WWDC took place in June this year (as usual). That suggests the old deal ran through, at the latest, somewhere around June or July 2013. (It would make sense if the deal expired June 29, the anniversary of the original iPhone’s ship date.) During a keynote interview at the AllThingsD conference on 31 May 2011, Google chairman Eric Schmidt said that Google had recently renewed its maps partnership with Apple. So it would appear that was a two-year deal.

If you think about it, it makes strategic sense that, if Apple were going to break out on its own for mapping data, they would do so while there was significant time remaining on the maps license with Google. iOS is on a more or less annual development schedule. iOS 6 just arrived last week. iOS 7 is probably not coming until a year from now, and even if it’s on a more aggressive schedule, Apple would surely seek the luxury of having the option to wait until a year from now to ship it.

An all-new maps back-end is the sort of feature that Apple would only want to ship in a major new OS release. Technically, they could roll such a thing out in a 6.1 or 6.2 update, but major changes — and I think everybody can agree this has been a major change, for users and app developers alike — should be delivered only in major new OS updates.

But if the old agreement between Apple and Google expired in the first half of 2013 (which, again, my own sources familiar with the matter agree to be the case), that means the deal was set to expire halfway through the expected year-long life cycle for iOS 6. If Apple had stuck with Google Maps for another year they would have been forced to renegotiate with Google in a situation where both sides at the table would know that Apple either (a) had to agree to whatever terms Google demanded to extend the deal; or (b) would be forced to swap the mapping back-end of iOS 6 midway through its development cycle.1 However tumultuous a change this has been in iOS 6.0, it would have proven more tumultuous and controversial if Apple had been forced by failed contract negotiations to squeeze it into a 6.1 or 6.2 update come May. And, that would have forced Apple to devote significant engineering resources for an iOS 6 update that could otherwise have been applied to iOS 7. Big changes come in the major release; bug fixes, security updates, and minor improvements come in post-major-release .x updates.

Whatever chance there was for Apple and Google to agree to a longer-term deal for iOS to continue using Google Maps, the effective deadline for Apple to make that decision was earlier this year, not next year when the existing deal expired. Apple wasn’t going to wait to negotiate until their backs were to the wall with the currently-shipping version of iOS reliant on Google Maps when the old deal expired.

Update: Timeline-wise, and regarding Google’s purported surprise that Apple made this switch, it’s worth pointing out that Apple began making mapping-based acquisitions in July 2009, when they acquired Placebase. Apple then acquired Poly9 a year later, and then, a year ago, acquired C3 Technologies for $267 million. What exactly did Google think Apple was acquiring these companies for if not to replace Google Maps with their own offering?

  1. So what happens when the deal expires for iOS devices that haven’t been upgraded to iOS 6? My understanding is something like this: Existing iOS devices running versions of iOS that use Google Maps will continue to function, unchanged, for at least a couple of years. But once the deal expires, Apple would not be allowed to sell or activate new devices using Google Maps data. ↩︎