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The Underlying Angst of Google Maps and Apple Maps

So, if I may, I’ll start this week’s post with a little personal history:

I first set foot in Silicon Valley back in 1985 with a freshly minted computer science degree from the University of York. Having only a tourist visa, a few hundred bucks in my pocket and no return ticket to the UK it was a case of “beggars can’t be choosers”.

Little did I know the journey I was about to begin. 

I stumbled around, dealing out my feeble CV, sorry, résumé, to anyone that would take it. After much unsolicited prodding and poking I arrived at just two options: one was with a somewhat boring pre-IPO relational database management company based in Redwood Shores1 and the other was with a rather exciting startup called Etak who had invented an in-vehicle navigation system, the likes of which you would only have seen in Q’s laboratory. It was an easy choice, and looking back most definitely the right one. 

But Etak was way ahead of its time — about 20 years it turned out. It took that long before personal navigation devices — or “PNDs” as they were called at the time — started to become common. The price of the systems was partly to blame, many hundreds of dollars for a PND and thousands of dollars if you chose the navigation option from an auto OEM. Ouch.

Mapping and navigation technology didn’t really reach the masses until February 5, 1996 when a new website called MapQuest launched. I was working at MapQuest at the time and, boy, was it thrilling stuff. Initially providing just interactive maps and later providing driving directions MapQuest took off like a rocket, riding the dot com wave to internet stardom. At that time If you got on a plane nearly everybody had their MapQuest printout, giving them turn-by-turn directions from the rental car facility to their ‘final’ destination. 

Of course back in the late 1990s many people were still using paper maps. In the US it was the Rand McNally road atlas, in California it was the Thomas Brothers Guide. In London it was normally the “A-Z”.  But tremors ensued. Rand McNally’s response to MapQuest was, shall we say, “limited” and it wasn’t too long before business schools used Rand McNally vs. MapQuest as a case study on the impact of the internet. 

With the advent of Google Maps in 2005, MapQuest sadly suffered a similar fate to Rand McNally. By then MapQuest had been acquired by AOL and AOL was wholly distracted with its acquisition of Time Warner. MapQuest was subsequently left to wither and Google took over. 

But neither Rand McNally nor MapQuest suffered a fatal blow. Both still exist today (yes, really!)

So now let’s fast forward to the present day. In the western world we have grown accustomed to two prominent mapping apps, one from a company based in Mountain View and another from a company based in Cupertino. Together they are the most dominant mapping apps in many countries around the world.2

Upon launch their mission was almost identical to MapQuest. Their tag line could have easily been: “Find it, Get there!”

This focus on finding a location and getting driving directions to a destination has remained the signature dish of these apps for many years. Now they both have a few more tasty morsels on their menu with the addition of navigation for pedestrians, public transit and, more recently, cycling. 

But underlying all this has been a distinct ambition to offer more.  I think their aspiration has always been not only to enable “Find it, Get there!” but also to enable “Explore & Discover”. 

You can see this through the evolution of the apps over the years. It was of course apparent with the inclusion of restaurant ratings and reviews. It has also been made clear with ever increasing features and eye candy to entice you to poke around more: from Google we got StreetView and, just announced, “immersive” maps. From Apple we got Flyover, Flyover tours, Look Around and, I would say, some rather delectable 3D city renderings.

Google has remained steadfast in their process to crowdsource data, particularly for information about places. Apple, on the other hand, has tended to take a much more curated approach, as is their tradition. This difference is best illustrated by the now extensive set of guides from well known publishers that are built right into Apple Maps. 

The question is, will all this effort work?

Will people use Google Maps and Apple Maps as their favorite starting point for exploring where to go and discovering new places? Or will people just continue to use Google Maps and Apple Maps primarily for navigation?

There’s been a lot of chatter about this lately. 

Some of you may have seen the recent TechCrunch article where Google’s SVP for Knowledge and Information, Prabhakar Raghavan, stated:

In our studies, something like almost 40% of young people, when they’re looking for a place for lunch, they don’t go to Google Maps or Search … they go to TikTok or Instagram.

Gulp. Pretty scary, right?

I must credit Kevin Dennehy for pointing out this fascinating article from Slate on his Location Business News blog: Why I Use Snap and TikTok Instead of Google. It’s written by Julia Moon who’s starting her freshman year at Brown University in the fall. In it she says:

I’m sure that idea sounds wild to older readers who are deeply enmeshed with Google’s simplistic search engines. But Raghavan’s research is spot-on. It all comes down to the fact that teenagers don’t just want straightforward information. We want a richer experience, one that is more visually appealing, and one informed by our friends and people who are like us.

To be clear: I use Google products regularly. But I use them for only the most straightforward tasks: checking the spelling of something, looking for a quick fact, finding directions. If I’m looking for a place for lunch, or a cool new pop-up, or an activity my friends would enjoy, I’m not going to bother with Google.

So let’s dig into this a little:

Snapchat, for some time now,  has had a prominent map feature — Snap Map. You can use it to discover where your friends are and to discover the location of Snapchats around you. The map includes place search, popular places and even a heat map of where the action is taking place. 

I suspect partly in response to Snapchat, Instagram has recently added their own map feature. I’m no doubt missing something, but the Instagram map does appear to be somewhat buried. The interesting part of what Instagram has done, though, is add local guides. Unlike Apple Maps the guides are crowdsourced rather than curated, but because of Instagram’s reach there’s a ton of them — for example 500+ in San Francisco alone.

TikTok doesn’t have a map. But does that even matter? In her post, Julia Moon tells us:

But I do use TikTok, even if it doesn’t have a map component. When the algorithm brings you to a certain video, it can be like finding a gold mine. I recently saw a video from a woman in my area sampling a new doughnut shop, complete with details on menu items, the best flavors, and a quick tour of the interior. Just after watching it, I made plans with my friends to go next week. Finding that shop on Google search would have probably required wading deep into results crammed with chain and established stores.

I love recommendations I find on TikTok, because I get so much more information from a video than I would from perusing a restaurant’s menu or looking through Yelp reviews. For a technology-addicted generation with short attention spans, there is little incentive to go out of our way to find new restaurant openings, or click beyond the first page of a Google search for nearby activities. TikTok videos with recommendations are quick, informative, and visually immersive—factors that easily convince us to try something new.

So the question I have is this:

Will Google Maps and Apple Maps succeed in being the prominent “Explore & Discover” platforms, or will they forever be stuck in a “Find it, Get there!” world?

That, I propose, is their underlying angst. 

1 err, Oracle anyone?

2 Baidu Maps, KakaoMap and Yandex Navigator are, I believe, the most popular mapping apps in their respective countries.

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