Google touts maps amid reports of Apple setback

Brian Mcclendon, vice president of engineering for Google Maps, gives a behind-the-scenes look at how Google Maps are built and kept up-to-date at the Google offices in San Francisco, June 6, 2012. (Photo: AP)

June 07, 2012, Thursday/ 12:20:00

Google's digital mapping service will get several new features in hopes of becoming more convenient, comprehensive and compelling as it braces for a potential loss in traffic from Apple's hot-selling mobile devices.

Wednesday's preview of the mapping service's coming attractions seemed timed to blunt the blow from the loss of a prized perch as the built-in navigation service on Apple's iPhone and iPad. Apple Inc. intends to end its five-year partnership with Google's mobile maps next week when it will unveil its own service, according to recent reports in The Wall Street Journal and the technology blog 9to5.

Brian McClendon, a Google Inc. vice president who oversees the mapping service, wouldn't directly address reporters' questions about the possible Apple setback. "We will continue to make Google Maps available as widely as possible," he said.

Apple Inc. spokeswoman Trudy Muller declined comment Wednesday.

If Apple ousts Google Maps from the prominent spot on the iPhone and iPad, it would be the latest fissure between two former allies. Their relationship has been degenerating into a bitter rivalry since Google's 2008 release of Android to compete the iPhone. Since then, both companies have increasingly been encroaching on each other's turf.

Processing the mobile mapping requests from users of Apple's devices has provided Google with valuable insights into people's whereabouts and preferences. That, in turn, has helped Google sell more ads to local businesses.

None of the new features touted Wednesday by Google will be available for at least several more weeks. The upcoming options include maps that can be downloaded on mobile devices for offline access and more three-dimensional imagery - the latter coming from its own fleet of planes.

Google devoted much of Wednesday's presentation to a dissertation on all the technological wizardry that it has poured into its maps during the past seven years. The service now attracts more than 1 billion users around the world.

Without directly saying so, Google seemed to be trying to convey how difficult it will be for Apple or any other newcomer to build maps that include as many useful tools.

Besides providing 26 million miles of driving directions, Google's maps now include imagery of most of the world's neighborhoods. McClendon bragged that 75 percent of the global population can now call up a high-resolution image of their home on Google's maps, up from 37 percent six years ago.

Google also has traversed 5 million miles to take ground-level photos of communities for a feature called Street View. The company has raised privacy concerns by posting photographs that include people in unflattering situations and, at one point, including equipment that vacuumed up personal emails sent over wireless networks that weren't protected with a password.

Google plans to embellish its maps with even more photos from remote areas, such as hiking trails in the Grand Canyon, with new equipment showcased Wednesday. The photos will be taken from specially designed equipment attached to a hiker's backpack. This gear will supplement photo-snapping bicycles that Google already has been dispatching to areas that can't be easily accessed by cars.

The company also disclosed that its planes will photograph swaths of major cities to conjure more realistic three-dimensional views of metropolitan landscapes in the Google Earth version of its maps. The photos taken by the planes are automatically converted into 3-D replicas using technology that Google developed for the project.

San Francisco will be one of the first cities to feature the more vivid 3-D imagery. Google didn't identify other cities on its 3-D list, but said the improvements will span communities with a combined population of about 300 million.

"We are trying to create magic here," said Peter Birch, a Google Earth product manager. "We are trying to create the illusion that you are flying over the city, almost as if you are in your own personal helicopter."

The option to download mobile maps for specific cities so they can be reviewed offline later initially will only be available on smartphones and tablet computers running on Google's Android software.