Is Apple Maps officially a lost cause?



Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL) kicked off its annual Worldwide Developers Conference Monday with the usual spate of new product announcements, self-congratulatory proclamations and cheap shots against archrival Google (NASDAQ:GOOG). The marquee headline was the overhauled iOS 7, which Apple CEO Tim Cook called "the biggest change to iOS since the introduction of the iPhone": Highlights include a flat, minimalist design that dumps skeuomorphism in favor of a user interface that's "unobtrusive and deferential," in the words of Apple's Senior Vice President of Industrial Design Jony Ive, who spearheaded the project. Apple also launched its long-anticipated iTunes Radio streaming music service, which enables listeners to access more than 200 Apple-curated featured stations, create their own stations based on favorite artists and songs and purchase tracks direct from iTunes in a single click.

Apple additionally puffed out its chest to announce that it has so far paid out $10 billion to iOS developers via the App Store. "To put that into perspective, that's three times more than all other platforms combined," Cook noted, adding that Apple has forked over half of that $10 billion in the last year alone. There are now roughly 900,000 total iOS apps available in the App Store, including 375,000 for the iPad tablet, and total downloads now eclipse 50 billion. Cook also couldn't resist smacking down Google's Android, explaining the while 90 percent of all iOS device owners are on the current iOS 6, Android is still dominated by version 2.3, a.k.a. Gingerbread, which came out all the way back in 2010. "This isn't just bad for users… this version fragmentation is terrible for developers," Cook said.

Apple may lead Google on mobile app payouts and platform consistency, but it still lags far behind on maps, and WWDC 2013 did nothing to change that. A year after Apple officially dumped Google Maps from iOS in favor of introducing its own maps platform, consumer frustration with the Apple service remains high, and there are no signs that relief is on the way. In fact, aside from revealing plans to integrate Apple Maps into its desktop Mac platform and roll out new features like sending travel directions from your Mac to your iPhone, Cook and his colleagues barely acknowledged Apple's location services business despite trumpeting iOS in the Car, a new program that integrates select iOS apps into the dashboard screens of new and upcoming vehicles from automakers like Honda, Kia, Chevy, Nissan and Volvo.

The absence of Apple Maps news and updates might not have seemed so conspicuous if not for the fact that just hours before WWDC, multiple media outlets reported Google is finalizing an agreement to acquire crowdsourced location services firm Waze for $1.3 billion. The Waze application assembles turn-by-turn GPS navigation, real-time traffic updates and social networking components to improve drivers' daily commute, with all map and traffic information originating via on-the-go users who keep the solution open on their mobile device. Motorists can also contribute reports on accidents, police traps and related hazards.

The next day Google confirmed it would be acquiring Waze for an unspecified amount. It is unclear how it will leverage Waze moving forward. One person familiar with the deal told The Wall Street Journal that Waze may remain available as a standalone app, with its most valuable data also incorporated into Google's own maps platform. Information from Google Maps may also integrate with the Waze app, the source added. Waze could also bolster Google's efforts to personalize mapping services through its Google+ social networking initiative, bringing with it a pre-existing network of friends who connect to each other through the app.

The deal stands to vault Google Maps even further ahead of Apple's rival efforts. Apple could have narrowed the gap by swooping in and scooping up Waze instead of letting Google have it, of course. In fact, Apple Maps already relies in part on information sourced from Waze and other location services providers, so it seemed to make perfect sense when rumors surfaced earlier this year asserting that Apple was in advanced negotiations to purchase Waze for itself. But a source familiar with Apple's thinking later told CNet the rumors were "fabricated," and last month, Cook confirmed "We did not" make a bid for Waze.

But why not? What value does Google see in Waze that Apple failed to grasp? And moreover, what will Apple do now if the Google deal brings its Waze data licensing partnership to an end? Perhaps Apple has simply thrown in the towel: Six months after Cook admitted "We screwed up" and promised significant Maps improvements, where are the location services worthy of the Apple brand? The rest of the iOS platform keeps moving forward, but Apple Maps seems completely lost, falling further off the pace with each passing day.--Jason