A stall tactic may be the strongest weapon in Google's strategic arsenal right now.
The Mountain View, Calif., Internet giant is facing a lot of questions about when it will offer Google Maps in Apple's app store, but the company doesn't seem to be in any hurry. Google Chairman Eric Schmidt said earlier today that Google hasn't made any attempts to provide its mapping app for the iPhone 5, and CNET confirmed independently that Google hasn't yet submitted an app for approval. Schmidt added that it's largely up to Apple, which has to approve any app that may be submitted.
Those comments are the last thing frustrated iOS 6 users missing their Google Maps want to hear. But the decision to drag its feet on a new Apple-approved Google Maps could be the smartest move for Google. Its more reliable mapping program gives Android a leg up on Apple and gives the company a clear advantage that any consumer can easily understand.
When Apple decided to boot Google Maps in favor of its program, it inadvertently kicked off a new battle in the ongoing war between the two technology behemoths. It's a battlefront in which Google has a distinct upper hand.
Google's handset division, Motorola Mobility, didn't wait long before exploiting the warped images and sometimes barren details on Apple's map program, running an ad with a side-by-side comparison with the tagline, "The real world that's fit for your hand." Google can only benefit from the growing negativity towards Apple's map application.
But Google also has to be careful not to alienate users or hurt its own ecosystem. And it shouldn't wait too long if it wants to make an iPhone map app. As CNET noted last week, Google needs the traffic that iOS users bring. And while Schmidt's comments position Apple as the bad guy, that view could quickly change if it appears Google is hurting consumers through its battle with Apple.
"On the one hand, by not submitting a map app, there's a chance for [Android phone makers] to have a real competitive edge in one category," BGC Partners analyst Colin Gillis said. "But the flips ide is if Google loses access to those customers, it's a big chunk of the mobile market."
Apple and Google used to partner closely, but the relationship has frayed as Android vies with iOS for smartphone and tablet market share and the companies accuse each other of stealing designs. In response the growing tension, Apple decided to package its own mapping app with iOS 6 and the iPhone 5 rather than rely on Google's long-used program. That decision has faced a lot of problems, with Apple Maps misnaming cities, misplacing landmarks, and excluding mass transit directions.
The backlash against Apple Maps has been strong and is continuing to build. Apple likely will improve its mapping app, but it won't be easy and it won't happen overnight. For awhile, at least, Android has the advantage in this area.
"For people right on the cusp of choosing, this could steer them toward Android," said Endpoint Technologies analyst Roger Kay.
Even if Google decides to release a maps app for iOS, it could still find ways to differentiate the Android version, such as including newer features or broader capabilities. At this point, some irritated iPhone users would take any version of Google Maps over the iOS version.
In the end, it may not be up to Google. Apple has to approve all apps, and it has tended to ban apps that it believes replicates core capabilities Apple provides on its own. While that puts Google Maps at risk, the recent backlash may pressure Apple to accelerate the approval process.
"If Google provided an app, Apple would have to think carefully about what it's going to do with that," Gartner analyst Carolina Milanesi said. "It's getting so much attention today that if they want to block it, they have to have very, very solid ground to do that."
Either way, this is likely to be a tense and long war on words, with each company accusing the other of stalling and hurting the other. The companies aren't just fighting over a mapping app, after all. They're fighting over consumers' hearts and minds -- as tech executives love to say -- and that's a battle neither can afford to lose.