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Apple is building its own Maps, but will it matter?

Posted: , posted by Michael H.

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Apple is building its own Maps, but will it matter?
It's no secret that Apple has been working on building an alternative maps application for iOS. Once Google really started to make some moves in the mobile space with Android, Apple ramped up acquisitions that all seem to be pointing towards a proprietary maps application that will replace Google Maps on iOS devices. However, there is a lot more to a successful maps application than just navigation, and we're wondering how long it will take Apple to get its own maps up to speed, and by then, if it really makes any difference for the platform. 

Apple's acquisitions

The story of Apple's Maps project (for simplicity we'll just call it Apple Maps) began just over 2 years ago in July of 2009 when Apple quietly purchased Placebase, which was the company that had created the PushPin API behind the Openplaces project. Both Placebase and Openplaces have essentially disappeared from the web since that acquisition. As of this writing, the Openplaces site couldn't be found, and the main page for Placebase just forwards to an overview of the PushPin API. The founder and CEO of Placebase, Jaron Waldman, has had his position on LinkedIn listed as being part of the Geo Team at Apple since that acquisition. 

Apple is building its own Maps, but will it matter?
The PushPin API and other products which Apple bought in that acquisition will likely form the base of Apple Maps, because it includes not only the actual maps of the world, but a surprising array of features which can be added onto the maps. PushPin includes not only the basic features of finding places and adding custom place pins, but also includes options for adding custom widgets and layers to maps. The layers are where a lot of the power of the product had been derived. Much like how we've seen flu maps, and or custom data sets added to Google Maps, PushPin offers a powerful set of tools to create custom data maps. It actually was quite an impressive program, and we wouldn't be surprised if most of the work that Apple has put into it is in simplifying the features and making it more user friendly. 

The next piece of the puzzle was Poly9. This was another quiet purchase by Apple, this one made in July of 2010. Poly9 was a Quebec-based startup which had used a number of different open tools including the PushPin API to create a Flash-based Google Earth clone called "Poly9 Globe". Of course, that product has also disappeared from the net since the acquisition. The prevailing theory is that Poly9 was acquired more for the programming team than for the actual product it had created. 

The latest piece was C3 Technologies, which Apple apparently purchased last year, but the details of the acquisition were kept so tightly secret that it wasn't until this past week that Apple was uncovered to be the owner of the company. C3 has created some incredibly impressive tech, which allows 3D imaging to be built from traditional 2D maps and images. This is very similar to what Google has been doing with its own Maps product with the new MapsGL features. The video demo of C3's technology is pretty impressive too:

The incomplete puzzle

The technology all looks great, but not all of it will be making the jump to mobile all that soon, notably the 3D modelling from C3. The 3D modelling features make for a great demo, and look good when it has a solid graphics card behind it, but it isn't the sort of thing that adds a lot of value to a mobile maps experience. It's kind of like FaceTime or augmented reality apps - it makes for a cool demo when showing off what your device can do, and has the potential for a lot of value, but it isn't something that most users are likely to use regularly. It's like Google Earth, fun to play with here and there, but almost no one uses it that often. There is a chance that this technology could be used to mimic Google's Street View, but Apple would still have to gather the street level images for buildings to make it worthwhile.

The rest of the acquisitions all make sense and add up to the beginning of a solid maps program, especially with the PushPin functionality to add various layers to a map. There are a number of options for layers on mobile including various location layers for different businesses, or social layers. But, it's in populating the places on those layers where we see the missing puzzle piece to Apple Maps.

Apple is building its own Maps, but will it matter?
As we said before, navigation is only a small part of the whole maps experience. A much larger part is in the place listings. Google has a huge head-start with not only having constantly crowd-sourced and checked places on maps for changes in roads and businesses, but the amount of data on Google Place pages continues to get more and more detailed. This is where Apple will face a problem. Place data can be gathered, but what makes it valuable are the reviews and recommendations. For this, Apple has two choices: it can try to crowd-source the data from iOS users, or it will likely have to make deals with various services like Yelp, TripAdvisor, Urbanspoon, or maybe Foursquare.

Yelp and TripAdvisor both pulled its listings from Google's place pages fairly recently. The claim was that Google was prioritizing its own user-generated reviews over the aggregated reviews from other sites. Now, Yelp and TripAdvisor are no longer listed on Place pages (and of course they are no longer benefiting from the links those Place pages provided.) But, Apple would need more than just the reviews for places in order to provide a true Google Maps replacement, because Google's Place pages for restaurants often contain various links for making a reservation through OpenTable, or viewing the menu from various sources. And, Google has done a lot to have reliable public transportation data added to Google Maps, and a ton of user generated content like geotagged images as well.

Apple could very well make all of the deals necessary to have these added features, but Apple is also a company that likes to build everything for itself and not rely too much on deals with outside companies, especially when those outside companies want more control over data like Yelp has proven to want. Of course, history has said that these plays for control from Apple have been because of Steve Jobs, so we'll have to see if that changes with his passing, or if Apple holds to his philosophies.


All of this adds up to a very robust offering from Google, and it makes the road for Apple that much longer and more difficult. Even though Apple hasn't been getting the updates to the Google Maps app that Android users have been enjoying, Apple likely doesn't want to just build a replacement with the features that users already have on iOS. Apple wants to be able to leapfrog the functionality found in Google Maps, and give users and incentive to choose Apple. As we've seen, Microsoft was able to slap together Bing Maps, but it is missing a lot in terms of both functionality, and ease of use compared to Google Maps.

Much of what Apple would need to add in order to have a competitor to Google Maps aren't things that need time in development, but things that need time in the market, because maps have become an extremely collaborative art. Collaboration is not a strong suit of Apple's, but it is necessary to have the reviews, images, recommendations, and corrections that keep maps fresh and relevant. But, there are a number of innovations that Apple could add to its Maps app that would be very welcome additions.

Apple is building its own Maps, but will it matter?
The number one feature that Apple should include is dynamic navigation. This is a leapfrog feature that is the hallmark of what Apple always tries to do. Dynamic navigation would mean that the directions change based on any number of criteria, including traffic, accidents/delays, road closings, or even just personal preference. Of course, a feature like this would require huge amounts of real-time data, but it is a feature that every GPS maker, and navigation app will need to have soon enough. Given the amount of traffic information available, there is no reason why directions would send you directly into a jam when there are any number of alternate routes available. Android does have this feature, which was released in beta back in March, but it is part of the Google Maps Navigation app. So, if you use Google Maps for directions, you won't see the live traffic rerouting, but if you use Navigation, it is there. 

Another addition is less of a feature and more of an overall philosophy, and that is personalization. This is the main push of almost every social product on the market right now - to surface the best information that is relevant to you - and should be part of any maps application. This covers what we just mentioned like knowing your preferred routes when traveling, to the location alerts that Apple has included in iOS 5, to alerts pushed a little farther which may be hooked in to deal/shopping services to let you know if something you like or need is on sale close by, or if there is an interesting event happening close by that you may be interested in.

Of course, any Apple Maps would need to have some impressive Siri integration. And, it would be nice to see apps be able to use the PushPin technology and add layers of content directly into Apple Maps, but that is very unlikely to happen. It's far more likely that we'll see something like that in Google Maps than any possible Apple Maps.

Time vs Value

That's really the biggest issue for Apple in this product push - time is not on Apple's side. Google is in no way slowing down its improvements to Google Maps. Often, when a company tries to leapfrog the competition, it's because the competition has stagnated and is no longer innovating as quickly, which leaves an opening for improvement. Google isn't leaving any opening like that, so as Apple is building its maps, Google will continue to improve and continue to push those improvements to Android devices. Apple needs its own maps app, because it can't keep relying on a direct competitor like Google for that functionality, especially since Google has been giving the updates to its own platform, and not updating the Google Maps app on iOS.

The question then becomes how much time does Apple spend on this project before it needs to be pushed out? Ideally, Apple Maps would be available and ready for launch with iOS 6 next fall, and Apple seems to have the foundation set. But, there are a lot of details that need to be sorted, and innovations that need to be made.
Apple may launch its maps on the web as well, but that is far from a certainty. Given Apple's history, it seems more likely that Apple Maps would be kept locked on iOS devices and maybe in OS X. On the other hand, Google Maps has links all over the web, and it has a solid TV presence as well because many weather reports use Google Maps. This all adds to the brand recognition that Google has in maps. If people see two devices, Android and iOS, where one has the maps that everyone knows and uses on the web with Google Maps, and the other has Apple Maps, there needs to be some clear features to convince consumers that Apple Maps is just as good if not better. And, Apple needs to get this product out sooner rather than later, because otherwise Google will continue to improve Maps on Android, and keep pulling further away from iOS with that functionality.

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