Google Should Make Apple Beg For Maps Navigation

When Google announced what is clearly the best car navigation application on any mobile today, it didn’t just take a swipe at GPS navigation companies such as Garmin and TomTom. It took a swipe at Apple.

Beyond the advanced features of the Google Maps Navigation app (voice search, crowdsourced traffic data, Street View navigation), what makes the app noteworthy is that it launched on Google’s own Android phones first rather than on the iPhone. By doing so, Google is putting Apple on notice that it is no longer reserving its best apps for the iPhone.

Navigation apps are a key category for mobile phones, and the iPhone is for once at a disadvantage here. Even the paid navigation apps in the iTunes store can’t compete because Google’s new navigation app is an extension (albeit a customized one) of its search engine. When a navigation app becomes an interface to Google’s massive search engine, it begins to deliver things that GPS app developers like Garmin and TomTom will never be able to build (search along a route, natural language search). Oh yeah, and did I mention it is free?

This is but the latest sign of a growing rift between Apple and Google. A couple years ago, when the iPhone first launched, Google and Apple had a strong partnership. At the time, Google CEO Eric Schmidt described the relationship as so close that it was akin to merging “without merging. Each company should do the absolutely best thing they can do every time.” Google supposedly didn’t need to create its own phone, because it could simply create software for the iPhone. And, in fact, some of the best apps on the iPhone—Mail, Maps, YouTube, Search—were developed by Google.

Only two years later, Apple and Google no longer have such a cozy relationship. A new Android phone is now launching every other week, it seems. Feeling the competitive threat, Apple started blocking Google apps such as Google Voice and Latitude from getting on the iPhone, and Schmidt stepped down from Apple’s board (although there were also other reasons for that having to do with antitrust scrutiny).

The tensions really came to a boil around the whole Google Voice saga. As we wrote at the time:

Multiple sources at Google tell us that in informal discussions with Apple over the last few months Apple expressed dismay at the number of core iPhone apps that are powered by Google. Search, maps, YouTube, and other key popular apps are powered by Google. Other than the browser, Apple has little else to call its own other than the core phone, contacts and calendar features.

So Apple starts to back away from letting Google take over the iPhone with all the best apps by rejecting them. And now we have Google’s response: a big middle finger. If Apple is going to make it hard to get on the iPhone, then Google will stop giving Apple its best apps first and use them to make its own Android platform more appealing.

Apple is in a terrible position here because the future of mobile apps are Web apps, and Google excels at making those. Apple needs Google, it’s most dangerous competitor in the mobile Web market, to keep building apps for the iPhone. Google would be foolish not to since the iPhone still has the largest reach of any modern Web phone. But it will no longer be a priority.

The sad thing is that Apple has been here before—with Microsoft. In the late 1990s, Apple had to beg Microsoft to keep building Office for Macs. Now it may be in the same position with Google. There may be more than 85,000 apps in the App Store, but it is only a handful which actually drive purchases. If Google Maps Navigation becomes one of those types of killer apps, Apple might need to do some begging first before Google goes through effort to make it for the iPhone.