Of the slew of new software features announced by Apple at its annual Worldwide Developers Conference on Monday, perhaps none are as important in the context of the smartphone wars as the new Maps function coming to the company's mobile devices.
The new app for iPhones, iPods and iPads, which will be part of the iOS 6 update this fall, is clearly the product of considerable expenditure by Apple. The company has acquired at least three mapping companies since 2009, with total costs estimated to range into the billions. At the San Francisco event, Apple executives also showed footage of helicopters flying over major world cities taking aerial photographs that will be incorporated into Maps' three-dimensional renderings. That sort of thing doesn't come cheap.
It's all being done in an effort to shunt Google Maps, an integral part of the iPhone since its launch in 2007, off of Apple's devices. And just how integral is Google Maps? A typical iPhone user spends about an hour and 15 minutes per month using it, according to Jeff Wender, senior vice-president at consumer tracking firm Nielsen.
That's time spent by end users – and developers – with a core function that Apple doesn't want to cede to another company, much less its main rival in the smartphone wars.
"It's more the back-end of services that Apple is taking ownership of," Mr. Wender said. "There are a lot more services that Apple is building in that developers will be able to take advantage of."
It's unclear whether Google Maps will still be available to iOS users once the fall update takes effect, perhaps as a separate download, or whether Apple's version will even be as good.
Eliminating Google from the core experience, however, is a necessary move for the company. Facebook integration – another major upgrade to both Mac computers and iOS devices featured at WWDC – is a good example why.
Apple is embedding Facebook sharing features into many of its software applications, much like it has already done with Twitter. If a Mac user is looking at a website with Safari, for example, he or she will be able to pop it up on Facebook with a single touch right from their browser.
The same goes for iTunes and Apple's App Store. Users will be able to "Like" apps, movies and songs in those respective stores, with recommendations instantly showing up on their Facebook page.
This is vital for developers because it will give them a new and better way to get their apps and content noticed, Mr. Wender said. Currently, the way that most people find new apps among Apple's library of more than 650,000 is either by looking at Apple's charts – which only list the most downloaded – or by getting recommendations from friends and family. Facebook strengthens that already prevalent aspect of social sharing.
"It's going to drive a lot more interest for people to see things that their friends like and ultimately drive downloads," he said. "Developers are going to benefit greatly from having that social networking element further ingrained within the App Store."
With Google Maps, Apple doesn't control the experience and can't introduce similarly integrated experiences that make use of a person's location. App developers instead have had to rely on Google for location-based services.
Apple's Maps probably won't equal Google's to start with – the search giant has been at it for years, after all – but it doesn't have to. The effort isn't necessarily about providing users with a better experience, at least not at the outset, it's more about giving developers options for integrating their apps in better ways with Apple's devices.
Remember, Apple says it's customers have opened more than 400 million accounts for the App Store, which is closing in on a billion downloads a month (30 billion in total so far). That's a lot of mouths to feed.
That's why today's moves look even smarter over the long run: They give app developers more reasons to create software for iPhones and iPads first, and for rival devices a distant second.