google mapsEver since Google’s split with Apple, the company has been shipping software that puts Apple’s own solutions to shame. On Apple’s platform. For free. Over and over again.

It wasn’t always this way. The first version of Gmail released for iOS devices was a broken Web-based app in a native wrapper, Google Drive shipped without the ability to create or edit documents, and both Maps and YouTube were condemned to a life of mediocre Apple apps. Lately, however, Google has reversed its course and started shipping some of the best apps on the iOS platform.

To say that Google’s products are popular with iOS users would be an understatement. Google Maps is currently the most popular free product in the App Store. YouTube, Google Earth, Google Translate, Gmail, and Google Chrome are all in the Top 50 free apps. Google Drive and Google Search are both in the Top 100, and that’s despite the fact that Google powers Apple’s default search tools in Safari and Spotlight anyway.

Google Maps in particular is a welcome addition to any iPhone. The problems with Apple Maps are well-documented and, at this point, tired, so I won’t delve into them here. But if the reaction to Google Maps’ release late Wednesday is any indication, people have been waiting for the app to grace their iPhones for a long while.

The idea that “Google is getting better at design faster than Apple is getting better at Web services” has been making its way around Twitter and the blogosphere, but that’s a symptom of Google’s shift, not the cause. When we first started talking about our coverage of Google Maps’ release, Sarah argued that the shift occurred because Google isn’t occupying so much of its time with Google+, but that doesn’t sit right either.

If anything, Google has shown its commitment to the Google+ platform these last few weeks. The network’s new Communities feature, though it seems like a carbon copy of Facebook’s Groups, is actually an awesome tool that half of the PandoDaily staff wishes would be used as our “virtual newsroom.” (Sarah put the kibosh on that pretty quickly.) It’s well designed, and its iOS apps are better than both Facebook and Twitter’s. And then there’s Google CEO Larry Page telling Fortune that Google+ very much is a big bet for Google, emphasizing that it is the company’s future, not a failed project to be left in the past.

Focusing on shipping good iOS apps doesn’t seem to have come at the expense of any Google’s other initiatives. The company recently released new Nexus devices and an update to its Android operating system, which have been moderately and extraordinarily well received by critics. Google Chairman Eric Schmidt said at the New York Times’ Dealbook conference that Google Fiber, perhaps the most likely candidate for a “This was just a test, we swear,” on Google’s part is “not actually an experiment, we are running it as a business.”

So Google is now working to build a true robotic assistant with Google Now and dominating the mobile landscape all while it’s busy revolutionizing Internet connectivity and, you know, computing? One would think that iOS, a competing platform, would get nothing more than a begrudging “Here, take an app,” but that simply isn’t the case.

Google has gone on record saying that the iPhone version is even better than what’s shipping for Android devices. Google is officially shipping better software on iOS than it is on Android, its own platform. But why?

Because Google wins no matter what.

If Android beats the snot out of every other mobile operating system – which it is – Google has successfully put its services front-and-center in front of millions (or, eventually, billions) of people. That alone could be considered a “win.”

But there will likely always be a few holdouts who prefer Apple’s hardware to the devices that Google’s Android partners pump out every year. And, surprise of surprises, those die-hard iOS users are said to make more money for Google than Android users. So Google is not only getting more users by embracing iOS even as it wages a full-on war via Android, it’s getting more profitable users.

Releasing sub-par apps would jeopardize that. The worst thing that could happen for Google would be for iOS users to take their eyeballs elsewhere, popularizing a competitive product. Though it likely wouldn’t hurt in the short-term, a mass defection would hurt Google’s bottom line – something Google would (obviously) prefer didn’t happen. Google has realized this, recognized the fact that the best way to keep users is – gasp! – to ship good software, and adjusted its plans accordingly.

And, if Google consistently beats Apple at the software and Web services game while simultaneously upping its hardware efforts, Google could convince at least some of those iOS users to hop on over to Android. Suddenly, Google has more customers and has successfully convinced its more profitable customers to jump ship – and it could do so without running cheesy, over-the-top ads like Samsung.

Google gets the customers. Google gets the cash. And Google gets data from ever-more users, allowing it to further improve its products and start the cycle anew.

As romantic as it may be to think that Google has suddenly upped its software efforts because of a change in the winds or an abandonment of its more “out there” efforts, it seems that the most likely motivation is also the most banal: Money. Google wants to make it, and shipping good software to iOS users is a good method of doing so.

Google’s success in this matter could be seen in a number of ways. It could be through upped revenues from mobile devices. It could be ever-increasing Android shipments and fewer iPhone sales. Or it could be as simple as realizing that all of Apple’s default applications have been relegated to a folder, with Google-built products taking their place in users’ Docks and home screens.

[Image courtesy laihiu]