SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - Apple Inc took the wraps off its own mobile mapping service and improved the search capabilities of its Siri voice assistant, taking the fight into Google Inc’s domain.
CEO Tim Cook, who took over from late co-founder Steve Jobs last August, spearheaded the unveiling of new services -- such as in-house mapping, beefed-up Siri software, address-bar search on its Safari browser -- to help keep at bay Google and its fast-growing Android mobile platform.
Apple tweaked several features in its mobile operating system to try to enhance its ability to entice users to stay within its ecosystem. The upgrades marked a bolstering of Apple’s arsenal as it tries to keep its top-down applications and hardware environment ahead of competition from Android device makers such as Samsung Electronics and Motorola Mobility.
But the highlight was the debut of Apple’s in-house mapping service after years of development, a direct challenge to the same Google service that is one of the most popular functions on both Android smartphones and the iPhone.
Apple’s new mobile software -- the iOS6 -- will be available in the fall. It comes with a mapping system “built from the ground up,” said software chief Scott Forstall.
It will be replacing Google Maps, until now a pre-loaded app on the iPhone and iPad, with its own in-house map service, delivering a big blow to Google, which gets about half its mobile map traffic from Apple mobile devices.
The move signals how the friendship between the two tech giants -- former Google CEO Eric Schmidt once sat on Apple’s board -- has become a bitter rivalry shaping the evolution of the mobile industry. Late co-founder Jobs was famously quoted as saying he was willing to go “thermonuclear” on the search leader, after it decided to position Android against the iPhone.
Now Apple will do its utmost to reduce its reliance on Google, said Colin Gillis, analyst with BGC Partners.
“What happens if one day Google decides to not provide Apple with maps,” said Gillis. “You can’t have that kind of dependency on a competitor.”
Apple’s map service comes with three-dimensional images of cities called “Flyover” along with real-time traffic updates and also turn-by-turn navigation, the last a feature that Google has in Android devices but had not made available in Apple devices.
And Siri, the innovative voice-activated iPhone search-feature users have criticized as faulty and inadequate, will now also be available on iPads and recites a larger database of answers, especially sports, restaurants and movies.
Siri is also integrated into the new mapping service so users can ask for step-by-step directions.
While Apple is late to the game with turn-by-turn directions, Forrester analyst Charles Golvin said that Apple’s new service featured various nice touches, demonstrating Apple’s ability to take an experience offered by rivals and “go even further.”
He also cited a new app for iPhone and iPads called Passbook that organizes a user’s electronic airline tickets, movie tickets and restaurant loyalty cards. The app is a “harbinger of them doing much, much more,” said Golvin, pointing to the electronic payment and mobile commerce market.
Finally, executives said Apple has integrated No. 1 social network Facebook deeper into the operating system, allowing Siri-users to post photos with voice commands.
Shares in Apple ended Monday down 1.6 percent at $571.17 after climbing in early trade, repeating a typical pattern where investors buy up the stock in anticipation of news, then cash out.
Long lines marked the beginning of the week-long annual Worldwide Developers’ Conference, where Apple developers rub shoulders with employees, test the latest products and software, and connect with peers. Apple kicked off proceedings by touting its hardware, its biggest edge over Google.
The consumer device giant introduced an all-new addition to its MacBook Pro lineup, Apple’s highest-end laptops. At 0.7 inches and weighing under 4.5 pounds, the new MacBook Pro ranks among the thinnest laptops in the market and will hit store shelves months before many Microsoft Windows-equipped “Ultrabooks.” They will employ the “retina” displays that have won strong positive reviews for the new iPad, but start at $2,199.
Along with the introduction of the new MacBook Pro, Apple also updated it current Mac lineup including the MacBook Air.
Marketing chief Phil Schiller outlined how the redesigned MacBook Air notebooks will be about $100 cheaper on average than predecessors, but sport quicker Intel Corp processors, potentially eating into territory staked out by Hewlett-Packard, Dell Inc and other PC makers.
Analysts have speculated that the company will begin aggressively competing on price, gradually shrinking the premium its Macs carry in general.
More than ever, Apple finds itself in a pitched battle with Google: in smartphones, cloud computing, and a never-ending competition to attract the best software developers. That is crucial as Apple looks to draw users deeper into its applications ecosystem.
Cook told the audience that customers have downloaded more than 30 billion Apple apps so far, choosing from more than 650,000 apps -- the largest library in the industry.
Battling in many arenas, the rivals employ different weapons. Apple’s vise-like grip on its ecosystem - with the closely managed app store and seamless integration with hardware - stands in stark contrast to Google’s free-for-all approach.
The open system approach, reminiscent of Microsoft Corp’s hugely successful strategy of creating standard-setting software that runs on a variety of hardware, has allowed Android to capture the market lead in smartphones, albeit with nothing close to Apple’s profit margins.
Android has also helped create several potent hardware rivals to Apple. Samsung Electronics’ Android-driven Galaxy SIII is drawing favorable comparisons to iPhone and Amazon.com Inc’s cheaper Kindle Fire is challenging Apple in tablets and digital content.
The move - years in the making - to replace Google Maps is a dramatic example of how the rivalry between the companies has been evolving.
Google has invested huge sums in mapping technology over the years, and about half its mobile map traffic now comes from iPhones and iPads. Among other things, the traffic from those devices reveals valuable location data that helps improve the mapping service and provides features like real-time traffic reports.
Reporting by Poornima Gupta and Alexei Oreskovic; Editing by Phil Berlowitz