Apple's efforts to create its own mapping software has led to a different set of maps for its new mobile operating system built specifically for China.
When the Silicon Valley company released its iOS 6 mobile operating system last week, customers who upgraded their devices began to complain that one of the marquee technologies–a new maps app to replace Google's maps service–had misplaced or missing labels for businesses, landmarks and roads.
Customers in China, however, found more detailed maps covering their country than those overseas, in part because their data is provided by AutoNavi Holdings, a Chinese mapping company that makes auto navigation systems as well as virtual maps and satellite images. AutoNavi is also the most widely used mobile mapping service in China, with 45% market share, according to Analysys International.
But in a sign of the continued isolation of China’s Internet from the rest of the world, Apple hasn’t integrated AutoNavi with information from Dutch navigation system maker TomTom, which helps to power Apple’s mapping service in other parts of the world.
When customers in China attempt to look at other countries in street-detail mode, the maps outside China lack features such as landmarks and public transit stops. The Chinese maps also don’t include functions available on Apple’s international mapping software such as spoken driving directions or the 3-D flyover technology that Apple has developed for several cities. The Chinese maps do provide written driving directions to get from one place to another.
If customers in China turn on the satellite image feature or layer road and place names on top of the satellite image, they can only see China, while the rest of the world is left black.
Integrating the two would take time due to a number of complexities, which include integrating map search databases and coding, a person familiar with the matter said.
Due to sensitivities over government and military installations, only 11 companies in China have licenses to do comprehensive mapping, and half of those simply exist to support the government.
The separated technologies Apple has built for the Chinese markets underscore the challenges it faces building its own maps technology rather than relying on Google’s offerings. Mapping experts say creating a comprehensive set of digital maps requires a lot of time and integration of data from many sources to ensure they’re all accurate, something Google has been doing since 2005.
Apple still has refinements to make both globally and in China. Searches for businesses and landmarks in China often turn up incorrect results.
Ultimately the maps will likely prove popular with Chinese customers, however. AutoNavi already provides data for Baidu’s widely used mapping services, and the Chinese mapping company has spent years accumulating databases of businesses, location names and roads. Google also integrates AutoNavi into its own mapping service.
Although Apple’s iPhone sales in China doubled in the third quarter, the growth slowed from more than fivefold in the preceding one. Apple is facing increasingly fierce competition in China from rivals such as Samsung Electronics and HTC, which are unveiling pricey devices with big screens and fast processors, and local players such as Huawei Technologies and ZTE, which are offering less expensive phones with competitive specs.
To gain an advantage, Apple likely chose AutoNavi because it provides the best overall data and system out there compared with its Chinese competitors, according to Jake Lynch, an analyst at Macquarie Group in Shanghai.
Mr. Lynch said AutoNavi invests twice as much capital in its products when compared to its nearest Chinese competitor, NavInfo, which holds 43.2% market share. “AutoNavi’s overall experience and accuracy is the best of the competitors,” he said.