Google Ups Ante as Map Battle Looms

Google Inc.

unveiled an expansion of its Google Maps and Google Earth services, upping the ante ahead of an anticipated new mapping service from rival Apple Inc.

The search giant said Wednesday it would start showing three-dimensional images for entire metropolitan areas in Google Earth. Up to this point, the service had shown 3-D images only of some buildings. Google said it would eventually also make the more-robust 3-D imagery available on Google Maps and to software developers.

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Google Earth will now show 3-D images for entire metropolitan areas. The service previously just showed 3-D images for some buildings..

In addition, Google said it would soon make Google Maps available on devices that run on its Android mobile operating system, even during times when the device doesn’t have an Internet connection because the user has poor wireless reception. Currently, the service works only if the device is connected to a wireless network.

Google’s announcements, made at an event in San Francisco Wednesday, come as the Internet search giant and Apple are locked in a battle for smartphone and tablet users and the hundreds of thousands of software developers who make apps for the devices. Maps are considered to be a future battleground, with Apple becoming the newest major entrant.

Wednesday’s event, which included no major news, appeared aimed at showing how much Google had invested in improving the service over the past seven years and implying that it would be difficult to replicate.

Google is currently nearly unchallenged in digital mapping for consumers, and thousands of developers pay the company to incorporate Google Maps into their websites. Google doesn’t charge developers for incorporating Google Maps on Android and Apple mobile devices. Many developers use Google Maps to show app users their location on a map and how close they are to their friends and restaurants, for instance.

Apple currently preloads Google Maps on its iPhones and iPads. But Apple has been putting the pieces in place to offer a mapping service of its own and to replace Google Maps as the default mapping service on its devices, people familiar with the matter have said.

Apple could preview the new software, which is expected to be part of its next mobile-operating system, as soon as next week at its annual developer conference, one person familiar with the plan has said. Apple plans to encourage app developers to embed its maps inside their applications.

“There’s a race between Google and Apple to develop the next killer features on their mobile platforms,” said Robin Thurston, chief product officer of MapMyFitness Inc., which develops mobile apps that let people track their fitness activities on Google-powered maps and share them with friends.

Mr. Thurston said he expects his company will develop a version of its service using Apple’s future maps software.

On Wednesday, Google vice president of engineering Brian McClendon declined to directly address Apple’s mapping efforts, other than to say Google would continue to work on providing comprehensive mapping service to Apple device users.

Android smartphones have one key advantage over the iPhone when it comes to mapping: They have a built-in Google turn-by-turn navigation service that acts like an in-car GPS, while the iPhone doesn’t—the result of disagreements between the companies over how such a service would be displayed.

Google product manager Peter Birch said that by the end of the year Google’s 3-D coverage, aided by imagery from cameras mounted on Google’s own fleet of planes, would extend to areas with a combined population of 300 million people.

Google didn’t disclose the names of cities for which 3-D imagery would be available but added that the new feature would be made available on Apple mobile devices as well as those powered by Android.

Write to Amir Efrati at

A version of this article appeared June 7, 2012, on page B4 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: Google Ups Ante as Map Battle Looms.

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