Joe Kukura

It’s not a well-kept secret that Apple’s upcoming iPhone 5 and iOS6 will abandon Google Maps, and will instead use Apple’s new home-grown maps application. Google is fighting back, souping up the capabilities of their own Google Maps with 3D capabilities, and the ability to work offline.

Google premiered their new enhancements to Google Earth and Google Maps at a press conference in San Francisco Thursday morning. This is a pre-emptive strike before Apple is expected to roll out their own mapping app at next week’s WWDC conference, also in San Francisco.

The most significant new feature is the 3D maps upgrade to Google Earth. Building won’t appear just as locations, but instead as very realistic 3D replicas. The 3D depiction won’t be rolled out universally at once, but rather location by location, starting with bigger cities. By year’s end, Google expects to have 3D map coverage of areas that are home to 300 million people.

“We're trying to create magic here," Peter Birch, product manager for Google Earth, said at the press conference. "It creates the illusion you're flying over the city.”

To see this illusion that you’re flying over the city, check out the video demo of the 3D Google Earth. Northern California residents in particular will enjoy recognizing certain particular recognizable locations. Google created the images by flying planes over city after city, and then rendering the images with 3D software.

In addition to 3D, Google announced that soon Google Maps will be accessible to Android phones when they are offline. That is to say, Google Maps will work even when your phone has little or no reception. Google Maps currently only works when connected via a wireless connection.

That feature may not be so much addressing a need, but rather calling attention to a competitor’s need. After all, a certain prominent iPhone cellular service provider is known to have, ummm, reception issues from time to time. The “offline” mode of Google Maps may be a way of reminding iPhone users that they wouldn’t be having map problems with one or fewer bars of reception on the primary competing smartphone platform.

Nothing about this new Google Earth stuff is particularly earth-shaking. These features serve more as a reminder that Google is the experienced hand in this mobile maps game, while competitors are still working out the bugs of their first versions.

Now we wait to see what Apple has up their sleeve next week.