The map app battle between Google and Apple is just one example of how marketing tactics can trump engineering prowess.

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SAN FRANCISCO — Ever since William Hewlett and David Packard began selling their strange-looking audio oscillator almost 75 years ago, Silicon Valley engineers have been viewed with an almost-mythic reverence.

In the 1980s and '90s, they were semiconductor and PC designers with calculators tucked in the pockets of their short-sleeve shirts, taking computing power to the masses.

Today, they're clad in hooded sweatshirts during all-night hacking sessions, creating the next generation of software features for social media users.

As the tech industry exploded the last half century, engineers became pop-culture heroes, feted at business schools and portrayed on TV as cunning crime fighters.

Yet even as geek culture has gone mainstream, the work done by engineers at large technology companies may now matter less than it used to.

The battle over smartphone mapping applications in the U.K. shows why. Data released this week by market researcher ComScore shows Apple was able to turn the tables on Google in the market for mobile map apps there in less than a year.

In October 2012, 71% of the iPhone users in the U.K. used Google Maps for navigation, according to ComScore data, which was reported by the U.K.'s Guardian newspaper.

But by September of this year, more than two-thirds of iPhone users there had switched to using Apple's own map app.

Apple now controls 60% of the iPhone mapping software market, while Google's share on that device in the U.K. has fallen to less than 20%.

The trend mirrors one reported earlier this month which showed Google lost more than 20 million map users in the U.S.

Apple was able to take massive market share not by out-engineering the Internet search giant. In fact, the first version of Apple's product drew so many complaints that it help cost the top Apple executive in charge of mobile software his job.

No, the iconic tech giant won the battle simply by making its own software the default choice on its own phone, a move that required only a minor change in a small amount of computer code.

But the change is significant in the mobile ad market.

Now, whenever locals or tourist visitors use an iPhone to navigate anywhere from Buckingham Palace to Stonehenge, it will be Apple and its partners — not Google — selling most of the ads that appear next to their maps.

It's not like Apple has a monopoly on bare-knuckles marketing tactics that trump engineering prowess. Google is in hot water now with users of its YouTube video service, after it required them to sign up for the company's Google+ social network to post YouTube comments.

That decision was surely a bummer for all the engineers at several start-ups that hope to sell their comment-management software to online publishers.

Nor is Apple's behavior new.

Last decade, Microsoft and Google fought a similar battle — in Washington, D.C., and in the courts — over whose search technology would be made the default choice on Windows-based PCs.

To be sure, Google still controls nearly two-thirds of the U.S. search advertising market — despite heavy search marketing spending by Microsoft — because its technology works so well for users and online advertisers.

But there's an equally-compelling argument that if Yahoo hadn't rebuffed Microsoft's takeover offer in early 2009 — yet another decision not made by engineers in hoodies — Microsoft's U.S. search market share would be significantly higher today.

And Google's technology was of no help in defending its share of the iPhone map market.

Google of course still sells ads next to maps that appear on Android smartphones.

Yet the map app battle is not the only arena where Apple was able to wield something other than engineering talent against a smartphone foe.

Its lawyers, for example, scored a major victory over Samsung Electronics, the world's No. 1 maker of smartphones, in a high-profile patent-infringement case.

Granted, the amount of the award Apple initially won in the lawsuit was reduced to $290 million from $1 billion — hardly more than a rounding error for either company.

Still, as consumer technology markets mature and once-snazzy features become commodities, look for the skills of lawyers, lobbyists and marketing types to gain in importance relative to engineers.

Don't shed too many tears for the geeks, though.

They'll still have all those crime-show reruns to boost their self-worth.

John Shinal has covered tech and financial markets for 15 years at Bloomberg, BusinessWeek, the San Francisco Chronicle, Dow Jones MarketWatch, Wall Street Journal Digital Network and others. Follow him on Twitter: @johnshinal.

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