Bottom line: Google has quietly resumed updates of its China mapping service in a bid to tap the booming local market for location-based services.
Are they or aren’t they? That’s the question going through everyone’s minds these days about Google’s (Nasdaq: GOOG) stealth return to China, following reports that the company has quietly re-launched its previously dormant mapping service in the market. In this case there are quite a few conflicting signals, including the one coming from Google itself, which says nothing has changed with its mapping service.
I was a bit surprised at Google’s definitive statement, since I can say with certainty that the company has indeed resumed updating its popular mapping service following a dormant period of at least a few years after shuttering its China-based search service in 2010. Last year there was similar word that Google’s map site had resumed service in China, and I went and checked the URL at the time.
That URL was indeed accessible in China back then, unlike most Google sites that are officially blocked. But a check of the site at the time showed that it had been left unchanged for many years, since a shopping mall that had opened 3 or 4 years earlier in an area I was searching was still absent.
This time when the latest reports emerged that the site was accessible (English article), I wasn’t surprised to find that indeed that was the case. But when I went and checked the site this time, I was surprised to find that the 3-year-old shopping mall that was absent last time had suddenly appeared. What’s more, another shopping mall that had just opened near my office less than two years ago was also included.
That seemed to clearly indicate that Google had resumed updating the service, even though the company officially said that there are “no changes” to its China mapping service. (English article) Regardless of what they say, I’m nearly 100 percent sure that the company quietly resumed updating the maps sometime in the last 12 months, though its intent isn’t really clear at this point.
Before we speculate a bit more on that, let’s step back and give a bit of history to put this latest move in broader context. Google formally shuttered its China-based search engine in 2010 after a high-profile spat with Beijing over the government’s strict self-censorship policies. Google stopped updating its China-based mapping services around the same time, and stopped supporting most of its other China-based web services. It maintains its Google.cn site today, but mostly as a placeholder that redirects people to its Hong Kong site. One of the few China-based internet services it still offers is translation.
But the company has had second thoughts about China in the last 3 or 4 years, and is now quietly trying to make a return, even though it points out it has always maintained a sales presence here. It has resumed its regular conferences for local developers of apps for its Android operating system, and its CEO has made several relatively high-profile visits to the country.
Talk is that one of its main goals is to launch a China version of its Google Play store featuring apps for Android. I’ve also speculated it wants to enter the China smartphone market with its new-ish Pixel line of models. But this latest development in maps seems to indicate it may also want to re-enter that business, which could be quite lucrative due to the explosion in location-based services.
A contact pointed out that Google’s updated maps could also be used by the developer of the popular Pokemon Go game if it decided to launch the title in China. The popular game used Google maps in the rest of the world, and the absence of updated Google maps in China may have been one of several factors that prevented it from ever launching here during its heyday in 2016.
Recent reports indicated Pokemon Go’s developer might be preparing for a long-delayed China launch with local partner NetEase (Nasdaq: NTES), and thus the updating of Google maps could be one of the pieces that would finally make that move possible. Regardless of smaller details like that, this updating of its China mapping service does seem to be the latest move in Google’s slow return to China, and we can probably expect to see more such moves this year.