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Can Apple map app live up to its promise?

The software newcomer to the iPhone series is

The software newcomer to the iPhone series is Apple Maps, which critics say doesn't stand up to the longtime iPhone staple, Google Maps. (Sept. 12, 2012) Credit: Getty Images

The latest casualty of Apple Inc.'s war with Google Inc. in the mobile-phone market is one of the most widely used features of the iPhone: maps.

New mapping software Apple is introducing this week with the iPhone 5 was criticized by technology gadget reviewers, who said it doesn't provide directions for public transportation and sometimes gets confused when navigating users.

"Apple believes that they can deliver a better experience for customers than Google," said Sarah Rotman Epps, an analyst at Forrester Research. "But in the short term, Google has a better mapping application, and iPhone customers will suffer."

Apple, which is touting the map features as a key software change in the iPhone 5, built its navigation application amid a growing battle with Google, which had provided its Google Maps program since the iPhone was introduced in 2007.

Apple, based in Cupertino, Calif., built the replacement app because it wanted to scale back its relationship with Google, not because of any product flaws, said two people familiar with Apple's development of the mapping features.

The company's rivalry with Google, based in Mountain View, Calif., was born after the owner of the world's largest Internet search engine developed the Android mobile operating system, which runs devices from manufacturers such as Samsung Electronics Co. and HTC Corp. that compete with Apple's iPhone. Android is now the world's most popular smartphone software.

As the competition escalated, Google chairman Eric Schmidt exited Apple's board in 2009. Apple also traded patent-infringement lawsuits with several smartphone manufacturers who use Android, including Samsung.

The fallout from the feud extends beyond mapping. Customers also won't find Google's YouTube application preinstalled on the iPhone for the first time since 2007. Google's email and document software also haven't worked as well for iPhone customers as on Android phones, Rotman Epps said.

From a business perspective, Apple's decision on mapping is important because its software ecosystem for providing music, apps and other services to customers helps to differentiate its products, said Michael Gartenberg, an analyst at Gartner Inc.

"It doesn't make sense for Apple to outsource a key part of their entire ecosystem to Google," Gartenberg said. Customers aren't likely to find as much fault with the mapping features as the reviewers did, he said.

The reviews for the iPhone 5 were mostly positive, especially for its faster data speeds and lightweight body design. Walt Mossberg, the technology critic for The Wall Street Journal, called it the best smartphone on the market, while singling out the maps as a shortcoming.

"The biggest drawback I found is the new Maps app," wrote Mossberg. Bloomberg's Rich Jaroslovsky also criticized the mapping features.

Not all reviewers were disappointed by the new mapping software. Ed Baig of USA Today didn't note any flaws with the feature, and Macworld called it "stunning." Trudy Muller, a spokeswoman for Apple, declined to comment, as did Nate Tyler, a spokesman for Google.

Customers haven't shown any hesitation about adopting Apple's new technology. Apple received more than 2 million orders for the iPhone 5 in 24 hours, more than double the previous record set with the iPhone 4S last year.

"Mapping is probably the biggest weakness of iOS 6, but it's still a relatively minor weakness," Gartenberg said. "Two million customers have already said it's not an issue."

Under the companies' arrangement starting with the first iPhone, Google provided Apple with mapping technology in exchange for data on the location of cell towers, Wi-Fi hot spots and where people were traveling, according to three people with knowledge of the relationship. Google used this data to make more accurate maps -- by determining if a street is one-way, for example.

With its new effort to replace Google, Apple is using data provided by TomTom NV and OpenStreetMap. For the first time, Apple's new mapping application features audio turn-by-turn navigation. Google, for its part, never let Apple include the turn-by-turn navigation feature in the version of Google Maps used on the iPhone. As more people use the app, Apple will accumulate data that will help it improve the product.

While Apple is encouraging developers to build software to provide public transportation directions, Google has said it has data for more than 1 million public transportation points worldwide in almost 500 cities. This week, it unveiled its own new mapping features for smartphones using its Android operating system.

"It's a really hard question of how do you create great software on everyone's devices but reserve the best experience for your own," Rotman Epps said.

Apple's mapping initiative has been led by Scott Forstall, the company's senior vice president of iPhone software. In the past few years, Apple has acquired small mapping companies including C3 Technologies, Poly9 and Placebase.

This isn't the first time Apple has faced criticism during the introduction of a new iPhone. The first model was assailed for dropped calls, and the iPhone 4 had a faulty antenna. Last year's iPhone 4S had battery-life issues. In each instance, customers seemed to disregard the troubles, and the iPhone has become the world's top-selling line of smartphones.

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