The New Dimension in Mapping – Not the One you Think.

It looks like the next two weeks will have a lot of talk about 3D maps.  Apple is widely anticipated to be breaking from Google with a new offering based on the C3 technology, likely announced at WWDC June 11-15.  And Google, in what looks like a move to pre-empt Apple has just announced a Mapping event the week before that strongly hints at some new 3D technology (6/6/12 Update: See comments on Google’s event here).  And Nokia has been collecting LIDAR data through NAVTEQ for years and can’t be far behind.  This will position 3D and the Next New Thing; the next competitive battlefield in mapping, and therefore in the $30B local search market.

There is a new competitive dimension in mapping, but it is not the z-axis. It is however vertical; specifically, the vertical integration of geo-data with the geo-platform. Potentially, this will have a much larger impact than any feature innovation like 3D because it changes the long term competitive picture, favoring some and making it very difficult for others to follow.

Historically, geo-data (which historically were maps) were separated from geo-platforms.  Some organizations collected map data (NAVTEQ, TeleAtlas, AND, OpenStreetMap, etc.) and other companies built platforms to explicate that data (ESRI, deCarta, Autodesk, MapQuest, etc.). Since the main effort in digital mapping from its inception until the mid-2000’s was to build out geographic coverage, the “new” data generated by the former was typically about new regions, or new streets.  It was not a new type of data, with new processing or display needs (OK, some simplification here…I know new geos mean some new stuff like geocoding, map display, etc., but those are platform iterations).  So the system worked: Maps guys built maps.  Platform guys built platforms. As quick as the Map guys could spit out new territories, Platform guys could make them work in cars, in browsers and on mobile devices.

But now, with most of the monetizable world mapped, the game is shifting to new types of data on the same geos. The new basis for competition is traffic, imagery, deep POI content, social content, real time information, analytics data, demographic content, indoor maps and now 3D. As new types of data come in, the challenge is to evolve the platforms quickly enough to explicate that content in useful commercial forms. The challenge is not only in collecting and verifying the content but now more than ever, in the joint evolution of content and platform.

Google and Nokia are well positioned for this new dimension. Since the launch of Google Maps in 2004, Google has consistently moved down the stack from the UI to the platform to the data.  This gives them the ability to do integrated planning:  new content can be planned in parallel with the necessary platform changes that are needed to show that content.  That means shorter development cycles and better product integration. Nokia, having dropped the increasingly inconvenient barrier between NAVTEQ and the Ovi team is now also positioned to do the same. Indications from their recent Directions Conference and the 2012 Mobile World Congress indicate that they are explicitly and aggressively going after this integrated data+platform approach.  If Nokia L&C can execute and not get dragged down by the Nokia Mothership, they should get the same benefits as Google.

Apple has an interesting position.  Assuming they are announcing something, you’d expect it to be very differnet because, well…they’re Apple. They have interesting technology from C3 and can obviously get content to feed that.  I have not heard anything to indicate that they are collecting their own content, but they could, if they wanted to. Long term, I think they will need to think about whether a third party relationship with data vendors allows them to compete with the vertically integrated competition.  It’s one thing to do it once, but the future will involve doing it over and over.

The rest of the mapping world has a problem. Developing content and platform in series means that cycle times may be twice as long. Double the cycle time over multiple product iterations is a formula for getting further and further behind. There may be niches in the market where the data types don’t evolve as quickly, but in the broader market, these companies will need to figure out ways to bring new data to market, quickly.

I recently moderated a panel on the automotive “Connected Car” business. We had panelists from differnet parts of the ecosystem. I proposed that their competition was not the others in the Automotive industry. It was Google, Nokia and Apple who would bring large scale, fully integrated geoservices, optimized for the whole, not for each part. I asked them how they would compete, if each hoped to optimize his part and could not direct the actions of the others.  The answer:  “Well, there’s an Auto Industry Consortium…”

Somehow I doubt Larry Page lies awake nights worrying about Auto Industry Consortium.

The solution? If you aren’t vertically integrated, get there, at least if you want to be a big player.  If that isn’t possible, then the word “partnering” had better take on a whole new meaning.  Not the insipid, press-release generating partnerships that we see and hear about all the time; the types that sound good but never go anywhere.  Instead, they need to be strategically designed partnerships that assemble the needed parts, combine and telescope the planning processes and provide incentives for optimizing the financial rewards of the whole, not the parts.

That’s going to make a lot of people very uncomfortable.

Which is why it rarely happens.

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