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Apple dropping Google Transit is actually good for transit

To the disappointment of many, Apple's new iOS 6 won't include the Google Maps app, which means iPhone and iPad users won't have access to Google's transit directions. Future iOS users will need to install third-party apps for transit information.

Image by ebatty on Flickr.

The feature shake up with iOS 6 is part of a larger battle around Google Maps. Like many other Google Maps users, Apple is dropping support in favor of an in-house solution. Google's decision to start charging large users for maps, combined with an explosion of competitive alternatives, has enabled users of all sizes to chart their own course.

Apple's move is also part of a larger conflict between the two companies over Android and iPhone. Transit users are now counting themselves as collateral damage.

There's been a lot of hand wringing over this change. But in the long run, this is actually great news for the transit community. Here's why:

There's tremendous opportunity for innovation in how we design and communicate information about personal mobility. Unfortunately the tools have not kept pace, in part due to a lack of proper incentives for new services. With iOS 6 Apple is building a market for new tools rather than offering a default solution.

In DC, where I live, we're redefining urban transportation. On any given day I might combine trains, buses, a shared bike and even reservationless one-way car rentals. This array of new options fundamentally changes how I move through the city.

How I best use these options also changes. Traffic accidents and road closures happen, Metro trains fail and Capital Bikeshare inventory ebbs and flows throughout the day. Depending on the actual bus arrival time or the distance to the nearest available Car2Go my best route may change radically from day to day.

Integrated and accurate information tools are key to navigating the incredible and complex multimodal future we're building.

While Google Maps helps, it doesn't solve every problem. Want to find the best combined bike/transit journey (important for my daily commute)? No dice. New to the city and want to plan a safe trip using Capital Bikeshare? You'll need to shuttle info between two sites. Unless you're on an iPhone which doesn't offer Google bike routing at all. Want to use a car share? Go elsewhere.

Software developers have a real opportunity to contribute solutions for these new challenges. New user interface designs and improved computational techniques can make huge impacts. However, we've seen relatively little innovation.

One possible reason is that Google's free tools de-incentivize others from entering the market. iPhone and Android users have had little reason to download alternate apps, especially paid ones, when the pre-installed features solve much of the need. Unlike many other Google technologies, there's no current option to extend the functionality for transit or other directions, or incorporate this data into non-Google apps.

Google offers a free utility to any transit operator willing to share their data (and legally indemnify Google). However, it's very unlikely this service generates a profit for the company on its own. Instead, it's a loss leader, cross-subsidized by revenue from other services. Transit in turn contributes to the overall value of Google Maps as a comprehensive platform.

Unless Google makes a big change in how it derives revenue from its consumer applications, transit isn't going to be a major source of income. And without revenue and some healthy competition, there's less incentive for them to innovate.

It's pretty hard for a startup to compete with something that one of the world's largest tech companies decides to offer up as free service. Even transit operators, faced with shrinking budgets and limited staff, find themselves wondering if they should leave the responsibility of customer communication to Google—some do.

But Google's biggest contribution to transit is not the end-user functionality in their map application. It is the way they catalyzed an open standard for transit information. Before Google Transit, it was nearly impossible to get timetables and stop locations from agencies in electronic formats—a requirement if you're building an information service.

To solve the data problem, Google, in collaboration with TriMet, created a data standard known as GTFS (the General Transit Feed Specification) that allows agencies to share their schedules in a common format. Now, anyone building an app in one city (including Google) can make that app work in another location as long as the transit operator shares their schedule in the GTFS format.

GTFS, along with other open data platforms like OpenStreetMap, have made the development of universal, global transit services a real possibility. Similarly, open source technologies, like OpenTripPlanner (built by OpenPlans, also in partnership with TriMet), have served as the foundation for companies and transit operators around the world to start offering new and innovative information services.

TriMet championed the creation of OpenTripPlanner to provide combined bike and transit functionality to users (an especially important feature if you're in Portland, Oregon). At the time, no other solution could do that. And Google's still doesn't.

This spring, OpenPlans wanted to create a bike share trip planer ahead of New York's Citibike launch. It turned out that this feature had already been implemented by another OpenTripPlanner developer, Laurent Grégoire, who wanted similar support for Paris' Vélib bike share system.

Because OpenTripPlanner is open source and built on open data standards, we were able to work together, rather than reinventing the same features. A few weeks later, we launched for New York—a trip planning first—and are working to bring it other cities in the US. Now, bike share operators, software companies and individual developers around the globe can reuse this work to offer the same functionality in their communities.

Thanks to open data feeds like GTFS and OpenStreetMap, and open source tools like OpenTripPlanner, anyone can start a company that offers transit information services that are competitive with or even surpass Google's existing offering. The more that do, the more we'll see competition on features and opportunities for innovation with new modes of transport.

In the short term, there will be some pain as new tools are developed. But in the long run, iOS 6 might do as much for transit innovation as GTFS and Google Maps already have.

Cross-posted at OpenPlans blog.
Kevin Webb co-directs the Transportation team at OpenPlans, where he builds mapping and trip planning tools to help keep people informed about their transportation options. 


Add a comment »

The incentive to put your schedules out in GTFS is not the fact that the standard exists. The incentive is that you then get to be included in the biggest web trip planning/mapping software out there.

I disagree that this change is better for the transit community. The ability and opportunity to create a unifying "killer app" that would combine transit data, bikeshare, etc has been around for a while and nobody has done it. In order to actually be worth anything this app would have to replace the maps app wholesale anyway. The whole point of integrating it directly into the google maps app is that it's easy for the user - click the transit button and you're done. Apple has made it more difficult - click the transit button, pick which app you want to use, wait for that app to start and receive the coordinates and come up with a route.

It would also be nice if it was noted that this was cross-posted from the Open Plans Blog. The whole thing kind of reads as a shill for "see, this is great because now everyone can use OpenTripPlanner!" In theory someone could create this unified app but we all know that 1. application development is hard 2. 99.99% of apps make no money whatsoever so 3. the incentive to independently create an app is very low.

by MLD on Jun 17, 2012 12:38 pm • linkreport

This item reads like one of those occasional GGW posts supporting an agenda that is not identified to the reader. Please do a better job as editors to at least give us the bigger picture when you post something that is nothing more than an opinion piece by an interested party.

by John on Jun 17, 2012 6:47 pm • linkreport

MLD nailed it

by h street landlord on Jun 17, 2012 6:55 pm • linkreport

MLD, you are correct that the article was originally written for the OpenPlans blog. That should be noted on this post, I'll see if that correction can be made.

by Kevin on Jun 17, 2012 10:40 pm • linkreport

This poorly planned decision by Apple is certainly an opportunity to get a superior product on everyone's iDevice. However, there's no question in my mind that some casual transit users will be left behind in the transition, because they will never download a transit app. I know a few people like this, but don't have hard data.

For what it's worth (not much), here's a few projections ordered from most to least likely:

  • Google creates an Google Transit app, mediocre technology dominates, and iOS lags Android
  • Major web player (Yelp, Foursquare, Microsoft ...) breaks into the market and fights Google for market share
  • Agencies make their own apps, leading to market fragmentation and innovation at the pace of government
  • Nonprofit e.g. OpenPlans creates a multi-city app that breaks through to popularity (an uphill battle for organizations with relatively low brand awareness).
  • Apple admits they made a hasty decision and create a default transit app (unlikely, Apple doesn't seem interested and wouldn't admit failure)

(As an aside, this is a valid cross-post -- the OpenPlans blog is one-way communication, while the GGW community has a lot to say.)

by Matt Caywood on Jun 17, 2012 11:31 pm • linkreport

I have to agree. This is a surprising decision and one that is not likely to be well-received by most users.

by Adam L on Jun 18, 2012 12:39 am • linkreport

Agreed, John. There wasn't a disclosure with this post. Also, it's hard to drop something you don't have. Apple used Google's data, but did not have a Google created fully functional Google Maps app in the past.

by selxic on Jun 18, 2012 7:59 am • linkreport

So basically an almost universally panned and woefully underfeatured beta will ultimately be better than a robust system that's been on the iPhone since day one. Sure. Why not? Get back to me when Apple kills Google Maps completely and this is lauded as a good thing because users will no longer be confused by a competitive app.

by monkeyrotica on Jun 18, 2012 8:16 am • linkreport

The other thing that I probably should have mentioned is the value of a "full-featured" app.

People don't want a "maps" app and a "trip planner" app, they want apps that do it all in one place. The value of Google Maps is that I can look up a destination - a new restaurant - and see reviews, and see when they're open, and see their phone number, and hit a button that gives me directions from my current location to this place. Google maps has a lot of value in that it has all that information.

Apple jumped ship because Google started charging big users more (duh, because organizing and providing all this information is expensive) and Apple thought they could do a better job. I think they will quickly find that what people really want from maps is information - places, locations, etc. Apple seems to think people actually SAY what they think is cool about a maps app, which is being able to fly over a city in 3D. Except nobody actually uses that functionality for anything useful.

by MLD on Jun 18, 2012 8:43 am • linkreport

I have added a note about the cross-post. However, I disagree that there is anything wrong with posting this. OpenPlans is a nonprofit organization and is extremely civic-minded. I know Kevin and don't believe any of what he says is self-interested; rather, it's how someone who prizes openness and encouraging more developers in transit would see this issue.

As I've said before, a post is the start of a conversation. I wanted to cross-post this because, first, I think it made a good and valid point, and second, it also would create an opportunity to discuss and debate this question of whether this is better or worse for users. I encourage readers to leave a comment agreeing or disagreeing with the thesis of this article and giving reasons why.

by David Alpert on Jun 18, 2012 8:48 am • linkreport

David, I didn't think there was anything wrong or inappropriate about cross-posting this, I just think it should have been noted so I didn't have to go digging on Google to confirm that I had already read this article elsewhere. Personally, I was interested to see that there was someone else, on GGW no less, saying that this change was a good thing; then I was disappointed when I started reading and realized this was the same article I had read before.

To the article's topic, ANOTHER benefit of the Google Maps system is that to be included in Google Transit, you have to sign a contract saying that you will update your schedule data on a regular basis as it changes. If agencies just put the data out themselves there is no guarantee. There is also the issue that in order to make schedule information useful to outside apps, your agency has to (or at least should) put the data out in the form of an API that apps can call, rather than just releasing GTFS files on your website. This way apps can always have access to the most recent schedule information and don't have to update their own files every time you change schedules.

Centralization is a huge benefit to users. Anyone could have created the unifying trip planner envisioned here. The reason they haven't and Google has (for transit at least) is that it's a whole ton of work. Hence why Google wants and expects to be paid for doing that work.

by MLD on Jun 18, 2012 9:41 am • linkreport

I'd agree with your point if Apple were using open technologies for their mapping application.

However, if anything, Apple's maps app is going to be even more heavily "walled off" than Google's (not to mention that the maps themselves are astonishingly terrible).

(Also, David: That disclosure is super-relevant. The author works for a company that competes with Apple and Google. It's fine to show up here on GGW, but it needs a disclosure about the author, as he most certainly has a horse in this race.)

by andrew on Jun 18, 2012 9:44 am • linkreport

I think it's only a matter of time before Apple adds transit directions for iOS, so this whole conversation is possibly or probably moot. But in the meantime, Google Maps was, and still is, one of the best things about having an iPhone. It has the most popular API of any maps application and by far the most users of any maps application. And because of its pricing structure is the favored maps application for small companies. People never asked for Google Maps to go away. iOS Maps seems woefully lacking in functionality now, but time will tell when it gets out of beta.

If Apple wanted to promote competition, why did it drop native support for transit but bake in native support for turn-by-turn driving directions? There are, after all, a ton of great turn-by-turn apps for drivers. Why didn't it just drop support for all navigation in order to "create incentives for new services"? The answer is that Apple doesn't want to create incentives for new services. It wants to concentrate services under the Apple umbrella and eliminate competition, mainly from Google.

In my view, dropping native support for transit (at least for now) represents a disappointing philosophical shift for the company. Apple has always appeared to position itself as a brand for progressive, forward-thinking people in major urban centers. It never hesitates to demonstrate its maps functionality in walkable, transit-oriented areas like San Francisco and Manhattan. Yet it has dropped native support for mobility enhancing features for people who actually inhabit these areas.

by Scoot on Jun 18, 2012 10:40 am • linkreport

From the makers of "freedom from porn" comes "freedom from metadata" and "freedom from compatibility"! Gotta love Apple.

by J.D. Hammond on Jun 18, 2012 11:16 am • linkreport

But won't google maps still be available to iphone users through the web browser? And couldn't Google create a standalone maps application for download as a 3rd party app?

by J. Walker on Jun 18, 2012 1:59 pm • linkreport

Forget Washington and think about the smaller cities that no one is going to sit around and make a transit app for

by Jibreel K Riley on Jun 18, 2012 2:37 pm • linkreport

And couldn't Google create a standalone maps application for download as a 3rd party app?

They could make one. There's no guarantee Apple would approve it if they see Google as a competitor.

by MLD on Jun 18, 2012 2:57 pm • linkreport

[This comment has been deleted for violating the comment policy.]

by Ironchef on Jun 19, 2012 2:02 pm • linkreport

I don't much like the term "boi". For one, it seems to be pronounced "bwah", and it frames the subject in a very particular gender presentation.

by J.D. Hammond on Jun 19, 2012 2:47 pm • linkreport

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