Eager iPhone owners rushed to download Google's (GOOG) new Maps app, driving it to the top of the most-popular list in the iTunes store Thursday and marking a triumphant return for one of Apple's (AAPL) biggest rivals.
The new app, which became available in the iTunes store Wednesday night, may be a short-term boon for Apple if its release helps soothe the many complaints that Apple has heard from iPhone users over the last six months -- ever since Apple replaced an earlier Google Maps application with Apple's own flawed mapping service on the most recent version of its signature smartphone.
But analysts said the upgraded Maps app is also a powerful tool for Google, as the Mountain View Internet giant seeks to cultivate a profitable relationship with millions of smartphone owners who have chosen Apple's iPhone over competing devices that run on Google's Android operating software.
"Thank you, Google!" read the first of more than 12,000 mostly favorable reviews that iPhone users posted after downloading the new app Thursday.
Even so, Cupertino-based Apple will undoubtedly keep working to improve its own mapping technology as it
battles Google for supremacy in the mobile computing market. More than half of all smartphones used in the United States are Android devices, while slightly more than a third are iPhones, according to the research firm comScore.
Analysts say location-based services are increasingly important for both tech giants, as more people access the Internet on mobile devices. But Apple's homegrown maps service was widely criticized for offering buggy responses and inaccurate information, in contrast with the mapping technology that Google has developed and refined over more than a decade.
"If anything, this puts more pressure on Apple to sort out their own maps," said Carolina Milanesi, a consumer technology analyst with Gartner. "Maps are a key part of the future of mobility. They can't just throw in the towel now."
Google doesn't charge consumers to use its Maps app. But Milanesi said data from the app provides Google with valuable insights into its users' interests and travels. It also could help Google introduce them to other services and ultimately show them paid advertising.
Unlike Google's old Maps app for iPhones, the new version invites users to log in with their Google Gmail account, which would help Google exchange more information with them. While the login is optional, Milanesi said she expects many people will use it.
Google also announced it will release a software development kit that independent app builders can use to incorporate Google's mapping technology into other mobile services.
Google's old mapping service was extremely popular with independent developers who build apps for the iPhone and iPad, said Nolan Wright, co-founder of Appcelerator, a Mountain View firm that makes software used by app builders. The IDC research firm reported over the summer that 80 percent of all mobile software applications have features that are keyed to the user's location.
Wright cautioned that "it remains to be seen" whether developers will embrace the new Google app for Apple's iOS platform. Apple's own maps are still the default service on iPhones and iPads, which means users must take the extra step of downloading Google Maps if they want to use it. Wright said some developers may be cautious about using Google's maps until they see how many people use it.
Apple also has an advantage over Google because Apple's maps are embedded into Apple's operating system, which means other Apple services such as Siri will use Apple maps by default, said Charles Golvin, a mobile-technology expert at Forrester.
Golvin said that means Google's new app still won't provide "as fluid an experience" when compared with the Apple service, or even the old Google app, which was the default service on iPhones until it was replaced. On the other hand, Google's new app includes popular features, such as turn-by-turn directions, that Google has long offered on Android phones but were not part of Google's old app for iPhones.
Apple has apologized for the flaws in its maps and replaced an executive who oversaw the project. But Golvin said "the maps problem continues to be a black eye for Apple. It remains to be seen whether Apple's customers will return to using Apple's maps once they address all the problems there."
Investors seemed to agree with Golvin's assessment that the new iPhone app is "a win for Google." Google's stock rose $5.14, or 0.7 percent, to close at $702.70 Thursday. Apple's stock fell $9.31, or 1.7 percent, to close at $529.69.
Distributed by MCT Information Services
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