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Google charts its own course to the future in Japanese maps

Users gripe about quality as internet powerhouse pulls back from local partner

Games like "Pokemon Go" are among the next-generation services requiring maps. (Photo by Rie Ishii)

TOKYO -- The landscape of Japan's digital map industry is shifting as Google seeks to cash in on a treasure trove of next-generation services requiring maps by increasing its independence from local partner Zenrin.

Users here have complained about Google Maps' worsening quality of late, saying it sometimes displays dangerous back streets as major thoroughfares and private roads as public. Google says it is working to quickly fix the problem.

The issues appear linked to Google's decision to slash the amount of mapping data it receives from Zenrin, whose name has vanished from Google Maps' copyright notice. The company has relied on Zenrin for most of its detailed data since it began offering its map service here in 2005.

Following Google's move, U.S. mapmaker Mapbox said in a March 19 blog post that it will receive data from Zenrin.

Zenrin is one of Japan's biggest mapmakers, with roughly 1,000 surveyors. Using cars with 360-degree cameras and laser measuring devices, it updates its urban maps annually and every two to five years for more remote areas. It can also distinguish new streets and name changes as well as public and private roads.

Japan's map market demands precision. Its cities are densely packed with buildings and narrow streets that are shared by pedestrians and motorists alike. Inaccurate maps not only keep travelers from arriving at their destinations, but also expose them to danger.

Google likely sacrificed some quality now to increase Google Maps' availability to developers later. The company said March 6 that "Google Maps' next step in Japan will be to provide everyone with more comprehensive and flexible maps."

Although Google Maps is free for individuals to use, charges apply in certain cases for business purposes, apparently because of Zenrin's usage fees. The partnership also limits downloads and copying. The use of Google Maps in apps would likely increase if such restrictions were reduced.

Google will therefore refine its maps independently going forward. The company can gather massive amounts of location data, thanks to its Android mobile operating system and its large share of the map services market. This information will be pooled with more data gathered from satellite imagery and camera-equipped vehicles.

Google apparently decided to alter its contract with Zenrin after judging its own technological capabilities to have improved.

Map data has been used mainly for car navigation systems, but its applications are now broadening. Games like "Pokemon Go" by Niantic are also tapping personal location data from GPS technology built into smartphones.

Google parent Alphabet is a leader in maps for self-driving cars and also owns automated-driving startup Waymo. But rivals are quickly popping up. Dynamic Map Platform, which is backed by a Japanese consortium that includes Toyota Motor, agreed in February to acquire Ushr, which supplies maps to General Motors. Zenrin also backs Dynamic Map Platform.

Daimler, BMW and Audi jointly acquired Finnish mapmaker Here to develop the technology together. China has fostered local mapmakers with a boost from government policy. Baidu, Alibaba Group Holding's AutoNavi and Tencent Holdings-backed NavInfo form the foundation of its map data.

As the user base of these new services grows, data accumulated on people's activities will become useful for advertising and marketing -- and maps will play a central role.

Google's American competition is improving its map services via trial and error. Apple Maps initially suffered severe issues after its 2012 release but has gotten better over the years on steadily strengthening data-gathering capabilities.

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