Update: after I wrote this it emerged that Google Maps on iOS has only around 100m active users, out of a little over 400m iPhones and 650m total iOS devices in use today. This points both to the power of defaults and to the fact that, as I suggest here, maps in general probably aren't as universal a use case as one might think.
Imagine you have a solid back-office job in a provincial city somewhere in Europe or the USA. You live in a suburb and work in an office park, and commute by car. In a typical week you meet your friends, go to a local bar or pub or restaurant, shop at the mall, or online, and sometimes go to a town centre. Now:
- How often do you need to use maps on your smartphone? Once a fortnight? Once a month?
- How many meetings do you have in a typical week, that you need to remember? Do you have any?
- You're on Facebook, and Outlook + Exchange at work. How many emails do you get a week? How many personal emails, excluding robots? Is it in single digits?
- How many flights do you take a year? Two? Four? Or do you drive to your holidays? Are those flights ever late? Does it matter?
- How many new people outside your company do you meet for work in a typical week? In a month? Any?
I ask these questions because when looking at the future of Android and of Google, Gmail, maps, calendar, Google Now and all the other Google Services come up a lot. They come up both as indicators of Google's strength and as levers for Google to retain power of Android OEMs, since it can withhold these services from a device more or less at will. I, and the kind of people who spend time thinking about these issues, tend to assume that, well, maps and calendars and email and so on are very important, because we use them all day, and that the tight integration of Google services is a good reason to buy an Android phone and their absence would make it unsalable.
But most people do not have that kind of job. One thing that always bothers me about a certain kind of product demo is the moment when the product magically tells you that your flight is late or the gate has changed. But most people don't fly enough ever to have this problem - that's not actually a real, mass market use case.
What I wonder, then, is how much one can say that these Google services are very broad but very shallow. They address a need that a small number of people feel very deeply but that many more people may feel only occasionally, if ever. We know, for example, that the typical Gmail user gets five emails a day, 'mostly commercial'. How committed are they to Google?
The obvious exception here is an app store - but this is one area where it might be possible to make an alternative without having Google's vast machine learning engine as a back-end - Amazon has tried, and in China (where Google is effectively absent) there are at least half a dozen.
For everything else that Google does beyond web search itself, though, we assume that these services are very powerful, but do we actually know?
Note: the fact that some developers need these APIs to be present is a slightly different issue - most obviously if your app uses location then you need either Google's location API to be present or to rewrite your app to support another API. This has been a big issue for Amazon. But that's a different issue to whether the users themselves care.