In most of the world, Apple Inc. and Google Inc. are in an escalating battle to rule smartphone maps. In China, they’ve found a common friend they can’t live without.
Apple has selected AutoNavi Holdings Ltd. as a partner for maps on future iPhones and iPads in China, said two people with knowledge of the matter, who asked not to be identified before an announcement. The Beijing-based maps company has worked with Google since 2006.
Apple’s decision gives AutoNavi a leg up against its chief rival, NavInfo Co., which works with Baidu Inc., Nokia Oyj, and Toyota Motor Corp. The two Chinese companies are locked in a tight competition: AutoNavi, which also works with Microsoft Corp. and Samsung Electronics Co., had 45 percent of China’s mobile map data market in the first-quarter, versus 43 percent for NavInfo, according to researcher Analysys International.
“When Apple comes into China, they want to choose the best map they can, and lo and behold, they choose AutoNavi,” said Jake Lynch, who rates AutoNavi a buy at Macquarie Group Ltd. in Shanghai. “By getting onto all the new iPhones and iPads, AutoNavi will be increasing their users pretty dramatically.”
Mobile e-commerce in China will generate 305 billion yuan ($48 billion) of transactions annually by 2015, 26 times the value last year, and about 20 percent of the market will rely on location-based technology, industry analyst iResearch estimates. Mobile marketing may jump 10-fold to 24.5 billion yuan a year, more than one-fifth of which will use technology that matches merchants with consumers based on their whereabouts, according to iResearch.
After using Google Maps on the iPhone and iPad for years, Apple in June introduced its own mapping service for the next version of its mobile-device software. In China, owners of those devices will use AutoNavi’s map service and data instead of Apple’s. Beta, or test, versions of the software show AutoNavi’s logo on maps.
Just a dozen companies -- all of them Chinese -- have licenses for collecting map survey data. That means Apple, Google, and other foreigners need local partners such as AutoNavi or NavInfo to make their maps, according to Yan Xiaojia, an analyst at Analysys.
AutoNavi fell 1 percent to close at $12.82 in New York trading today. The stock has gained 28 percent this year, outperforming the Shenzhen-traded shares of NavInfo, which have declined 27 percent.
Mobile Ad Sales
Apple’s change from Google Maps will hurt mobile advertising sales at the search-engine company, said Nancy Shen, an analyst at iResearch. About a third of Google Map users in China currently access the service via Apple devices, Analysys estimates.
Helen Zhu, an investor relations manager at AutoNavi in Beijing, declined to comment on the company’s business with Apple. Carolyn Wu, a spokeswoman at Apple in Beijing, declined to comment on the company’s mobile map service in China.
Google seeks to “build the perfect map for our users in the months and years ahead,” the company said in an e-mailed statement, declining to comment on its maps service in China.
AutoNavi’s digital mapmaking business started with its car navigation products. The company, like Google, has a fleet of specially outfitted vehicles to take photos and uses satellite and infrared imaging to capture data for its maps.
Chairman Jun Hon, a former official at the Beijing Municipal Public Security Bureau, co-founded AutoNavi in 2002 with Chief Executive Officer Congwu Cheng to make car navigation systems. The company obtained a surveying and mapping license in 2004 to provide digital maps data.
In 2010, AutoNavi set up a map venture in China with TomTom NV. Last month, the Amsterdam company said it signed an agreement to supply map content to Apple.
NavInfo maps data were installed on more than 37 million handsets at the end of last year, the company said in an e-mail. NavInfo said it also supplies data for devices made by Samsung, Motorola Mobility, and Sony Corp.
By comparison, AutoNavi had 52 million users for its mobile maps app at the end of March, according to its first-quarter report.
Spending to expand mobile mapping has crimped earnings at AutoNavi. The company’s first-quarter profit fell 16 percent to $8.9 million as operating expenses and research-and-development costs increased.
The company is working with Internet operators including Ctrip.com International Ltd., China’s biggest online travel site, and e-commerce provider Lashou.com to integrate information including hotel and restaurant locations into its maps.
AutoNavi is diversifying into technology for consumer devices more quickly than NavInfo, according to Hu Jiaming, an analyst at Capital Securities Corp. in Shanghai.
“NavInfo is still much more focused on its auto division,” Hu said. “Some of the company’s partners in mobile maps, such as Nokia, are not doing too well.”