The iPhone 5: What Does it Mean for Mobile Search (and Google)?

As hotly anticipated, earlier this week Apple pulled the curtain back on the iPhone 5. It also gave a closer look at the previously announced iOS6 operating system that will run the device, among other Apple products.

And as expected from the leak-filed product launch, the iPhone 5 packs a new longer frame. This includes a 4-inch screen housed within an 18 percent thinner (7.6 mm) and 20 percent lighter (112 grams) body.

We also get a 326 ppi retina display with 44 percent better color saturation. It has LTE, an A6 chip, improved battery and camera, and a new smaller dock connector. The list goes on and on, checking most boxes except for NFC.

But more than the gadgetry, greater impact will result from the many implications behind the launch of iOS6. That includes deeper Facebook integration for app developers to build authentication and Open Graph tie-ins.

Other iOS6 highlights include the Passbook app for virtual loyalty card organization, Siri enhancements, shared photo libraries and iCloud tabs for shared Safari browser tabs between devices.

Product Roadmap

But the greatest impact could result from Apple’s new Maps app in iOS6, which replaces Google’s long-standing default positioning in that role. It includes satellite and flyover imagery among other things.

On the measures of UI and design, this will be a success as Apple often aces that category. This will especially be brought out by the aforementioned aspect ratio that allows for larger maps and better landscape viewing.

However one thing Apple could underestimate is that mapping and local search are games ultimately won on function over form. In other words will it find what I’m looking for, regardless of pretty flyover images of Big Ben?

That’s governed by the local data and algorithms that deliver relevant search results. And this is new territory for Apple, which is now cobbling together a silo’d list of local content partners like Yelp and Waze.

iOS Developers I’ve heard from have even confirmed that mapping result sets seen in beta versions have been somewhat disappointing (though emphasis is on beta). This could potentially mean one thing: feature regression.

The previous statement was made in full realization of Apple’s reasoning for replacing Google. Apple has always had tight control of its destiny and Google was simply gaining too much leverage within Apple’s own backyard (some might say walled garden).

But that doesn’t change the fact that this is a move that could end up disappointing many entrenched Google Maps users when iOS6 ships in five days. And that’s potentially disruptive to a model like Apple’s, whose margins lie in selling hardware.


The G Spot

Also interesting is where all of this leaves Google. The company has close to 60 percent market share of U.S. mobile ad revenues and 96 percent of mobile query volume. It owes much of this to default search positioning in iOS’s Safari browser.

This is still intact (for now) but it begs the question of what will happen when Apple yanks this positioning like it has done with Google’s mapping app. And don’t forget it recently did the same thing with YouTube’s default homescreen positioning in iOS.

The irony in all of this is in how important the iOS environment is to Google. Though Android is growing in hardware market share, iOS still has greater engagement levels. As one corollary, iOS has a higher share of ad impressions according to Millennial Media.

The mapping app solidified today wouldn’t sting as much as being kicked off the default search positioning in Safari, because Google monetizes web based searches to a much greater degree than app-based map searches in iOS.

But that said, local search is a huge area of opportunity and growth. Google has stated publicly that 40 percent of mobile searches have local intent (much more within a dedicated mapping app). And it has begun to monetize in-app map searches in Android.

For now consider it a hit to Google, and a harbinger for what would be a much larger hit to its default browser spot. If this sounds familiar, rumors have circulated for years that Apple will crown that spot to Bing (don’t get me started on the historical irony there).

Not Going Anywhere

But as far as mapping apps go, don’t count Google out by any means; Android again continues to gain device share. And even within iOS, bet on Google to launch a third-party mapping app, just like it did with its YouTube app this week.

This could potentially be much better than the mapping app it has now, as it wouldn’t be held back by iOS firmware update cycles. And if the above speculation is true about Apple’s inferior local search algorithms and data, it could vault that app even further ahead.

Though the sad fact remains that default “on deck” positioning usually wins out, Google still has lots of opportunity to gain mobile mapping share, even within iOS. Either way, it still has a far lead in local search overall. And it will take a lot more to steal that crown.


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