Time to pick up the pace as we get closer to WWDC. It’s once again time to take a look at areas that I hope Apple will address in iOS 7. In the last installment, we looked at the good, bad, and ugly aspects of iCloud and iTunes Match. Today, we’re breaking out the big guns. Yes, it’s time to tackle Maps. Obviously there’s no shortage of subject matter to cover here, so let’s dive right in.
Mapping the Way
Apple’s new Maps app and backend have become this year’s tech whipping boy, and evidently for good reason. However, the buildup of negative press has obscured some of the positive aspects of Maps. Here are a few of the standout features:
- Vector based map tiles are small and load fast, even over a slower connection. They also scale easily between platforms.
- Detailed 3-D Flyover views provide and interesting birds-eye perspective, where available.
- Tight Siri integration
- Useful integration with the lockscreen and iOS Notification Center.
- The layout of the app is clean and easy to understand.
- Turn by Turn voice prompts work well, and are easy to understand.
These are the features that Apple touted when they took the wraps off of Maps at last year’s WWDC, and they played really well in that environment. The maps themselves look great, and the app actually works very well. Apple also touted a series of well-known partners, such as TomTom, Yelp, and Waze, who were signed on to provide mapping, POI, and traffic data. The enemies of my enemy, right? That sounded like a really smart play at the time. However, there’s no way to prove how well a mapping system will perform in a keynote. It’s only when a lot of people get it out on the road and put it through its paces. That part of the Maps rollout obviously didn’t go so well.
There is no shortage of opinions on where Apple went wrong with Maps. They obviously misjudged how difficult it was going to be to create a new worldwide mapping system from the ground up. Google’s leadership has certainly reminded us of this fact at every public event with a mic since the launch of the iPhone 5 and iOS 6. Even though there were plenty of mistakes made, I personally think there was one driving factor that Apple allowed to get in the way: secrecy.
Anyone who knows anything about Apple knows how much they value secrecy and surprise. Steve Jobs was a master showman, and really fostered this culture of secrecy during his time as CEO. Unfortunately, I think Apple’s post-Jobs leadership allowed their desire to keep their mapping project secret to dictate too much of their strategy in building it. If Apple had previously done what they are doing now, hiring lots of qualified mapping specialist and cartographers, as well as bringing experienced third-party contractors on board, the tech press and competition would have taken notice. Anytime there are major mapping job positions posted on Apple’s employment opportunities site, it makes news. Just imagine the ripples this would have sent out if they had popped up en masse 3 years ago.
Everyone knew Apple was up to something after they acquired mapping tech start-ups Placebase, Poly9, and C3 Technologies. It’s just that, no one knew exactly what they would do with them. There were vague rumors that surfaced from time to time, but they didn’t really take shape until fairly close to last year’s WWDC. So, in a way, Apple’s secrecy had the effect they desired. However, it’s clear in hindsight that patching together maps out of of data from other companies, no matter how much said companies may stand to gain from being part of a strong competitor to Google, was not enough. Apple needed to follow the same path that others in the industry had tread before them. Well, that, or just buy someone that would give them a running start. Apple didn’t do that, though, and the big splash that Maps made at WWDC was followed by a bigger thud after release.
I will admit that it’s easy to criticize Apple’s decisions in hindsight. If they had started hiring mapping personnel left and right three years ago, it certainly would have made waves and likely would have made life difficult for the company in some respects. This would have caused more friction with Google in the partnerships the two still shared at the time, such as web search, You Tube, and the original Maps app. It also undoubtedly would have convinced Google to start build a stand-alone Google Maps app for the iOS App Store ahead of Apple’s own mapping product. While this would have undoubtedly made Apple’s initial PR pitch for their own product more difficult, it probably would have resulted in a much better product at launch than what they ended up with. Hindsight is 20/20.
So Where Does the Map Take Apple Next?
That a very good question. Apple’s hiring over the last year shows that they are committed to their mapping system over the long term. The only thing worse than the black eye they took in launching Maps would be to raise the white flag and let the product die. They really can’t go back now. Apple has to make this work. Thankfully for them, they are one of the few companies on the planet that have the cash and resources to make this a successful long-term venture. But what steps does that take? Here are a few of my humble suggestions for things that can make Maps a better product in the short term:
1. Do Something About POI Integration
For the love of God, PLEASE. Apple’s map information is actually pretty good in my area, and evidently in several others across the US. The POI information is what’s really lacking for me. Yelp would be fine to include as a limited, background source of information, but they are not cutting it as one of only three sources for an app that’s used as much to look up locations, as it is to get driving direction there. As for Acxiom and Localeze, the other providers of business information, it’s hard to say exactly how much information they provide, because they aren’t as front facing as Yelp.
So what can Apple do? Buying Yelp and infusing it with the cash to go further could be one option, although that probably isn’t the best fit with the service’s crowdsourced design. That isn’t exactly in Apple’s wheelhouse. However, just how many other acquirable options are out there? There are a few, but we’ll get to that in a moment.
Another option is for Apple to furiously add other sources of data to supplement what Yelp, Acxiom and Localeze provide. How about partnering with one or more of the Yellow Pages and White Pages services out there? With the dominance of digital over paper firmly established, these services have all turned their attention to online and app offerings, but there is so much more competition there than they have ever faced before. They are all basically going head-to-head with Google, just like Apple. A lucrative licensing deal with Apple would probably look pretty appealing, and would give them a great hedge against Google’s rising power in this space.
Apple can, of course, build out their own database of POIs. But let’s be realistic. That will take years. Many, many years. However, while we aren’t privy to all of the licensing deals that Apple is subject to with their POI partners, all of these POI additions and corrections made through the Maps app are coming back to them. If that data belongs to them per their agreements, then I’m sure they are already working on their own database.
This is ultimately where Apple needs to go with Maps, but again, it will be a long time before Apple can handle all of their own POI lookups worldwide. With that said, don’t be surprised if you hear about several new mapping partnerships during the WWDC keynnote.
2. Find a Way to Make Flyover More Than a Toy
Let’s be honest. That’s all it is right now. Sure, it’s cool to look at a place you’re going to visit in advance, or somewhere that you are interested in. But other than that, what is Flyover useful for in its current form? That, and just how many cities worldwide are actually covered? As you can see in the picture above, downtown Memphis is, but nothing else outside of it in the Mid Southern US is.
I am aware that this same tech is where Apple’s 3D building modeling for turn-by-turn navigation in Maps comes from, but that’s also only so useful. It works well, but Google’s and Sygic’s apps also offer the same feature. It’s more for eye candy at this point, and Apple needs to move Maps beyond that. What they really need to do is find a way to make Flyover and its 3D modeling technology robust enough to become a viable alternative to Google’s Street View.
I know. That sounds crazy. However, what would be the point of Apple chasing Google on a feature that they have such a massive head start on? There isn’t one. Apple is too far behind in more critical areas of mapping technology, and that’s where they are focusing their energy right now. Rather than trying to copy what Google is doing with Street View, why not invest further in the technology that you already own to provide a useful alternative that will cost FAR less, and also take less time to build out?
You can already use Apple’s 3D modeling to get a bird’s eye view of many locations, and travel the streets of an area from above. However, there is a lot of work and scrolling around that’s necessary to do it. If Apple wants to make this tech truly useful, they need to integrate it with navigation in a way that will help users figure out what a destination looks like ahead of time, in a more automated way. This won’t be easy, and probably wouldn’t be useful in the software’s current form, but it is a direction that Apple should already be heading in
3. Buy, Buy, Buy
This certainly won’t solve all of Apple’s problems, especially when you consider that acquisitions are pretty much how they started their mapping efforts. However, while Apple bought a modest amount of tech and talent early on, what they didn’t get was mapping data. As big as they are, and ambitious as they seem to be when it comes to mapping, that can’t go on too much longer.
Apple building out their own data sounds like the best solution, but maybe not when you consider that they are starting at ground zero. There have been rumors floating around at various times in the last few months that Apple was looking at TomTom and Waze, both of whom they already partner with. Waze seems like a cool idea on the surface, but as with Yelp, a lot of their power comes through crowdsourcing. While I would love to see Apple go that direction with mapping, it certainly doesn’t fit their MO. Plus, you can pretty much guarantee that Waze’s cross platform compatibility would go away. That would make a LOT of users very angry.
Ultimately this would be an odd fit, and is even less likely in light of the rumors that Facebook is now a potential suitor to Waze. Those two are probably a much better match, in the long run. It’s probably wiser for Apple to work on locking in its current partnership with Waze on traffic and supplemental map info than to buy them.
To me, TomTom seems like a better option. Their Tele Atlas mapping data would instantly give Apple one of only a handful of established map databases in the world, along with Nokia’s Navteq and Google’s. TomTom also doesn’t rely on crowdsourcing, and has an extensive POI database that would also instantly help to fill out Apple’s. One issue with this idea is that Apple would have to either shutter TomTom’s remaining PND business, or figure out what to do with it. A possible way to get around this would to acquire the Tele Atlas data from TomTom, with an iron-clad lifetime license to the data given back to TomTom for use in their devices and services.
This could potentially be a big win for both companies. TomTom could continue to sell its own PNDs, app, and services, while offloading the upkeep of the map data to Apple and it’s vast cash resources. On the other hand, Apple gets instant credibility and a vast mapping database. This wouldn’t solve all of their problems, and would require a large, dedicated staff to keep up, but it would make the data Apple’s, and their’s alone. Considering how much they like to control everything from resources, to their supply chain, to their end-to-end experience, Apple having their own map data seems inevitable. This move gets them there MUCH faster.
4. Onboard is Better
One off the reasons that I like to use Navigon’s MobileNavigator is because of its reliability. All of the mapping data and routing are done on-device, so I never have to worry about a data connection. This isn’t a huge issue where I live, but I have run into signal issues plenty of times while traveling, especially in rural areas and in the mountains. It’s nice to know that your navigation solution won’t let you down when you get off the beaten path.
Considering that Google is already headed this direction, giving users the ability to locally store map data for certain areas on Android devices, Apple needs to go a step further to get ahead of the game. I’m not suggesting that Apple should make Maps completely stand alone. However, it would be wise to allow users to choose areas to cache. Even better, allowing users to store entire routes ahead of time could take care of the problem of Interstate and Highway routing in-between metro areas that users may be traveling to.
Add to this the ability to generate routes based on this locally stored map data, add you have a pretty good solution that doesn’t completely Sherlock the existing turn-by-turn navigation apps in the App Store, but does give travelers more power in their stock mapping option.
Oh, and more more thing. Add seamless iCloud local route and map data syncing between devices when they are connected to the Internet, and you have a great way of navigating using multiple devices (potentially including a smart watch that may or may not find its way out of Jony Ive’s lab one of these days) while on the go.
5. All Hands On Deck
I’ve never been a big fan of Apple’s GPS policy for non-phones. Basically, if it doesn’t have cellular Internet access, then it doesn’t have a GPS chip. This means that all iPod Touches and a large percentage of iPads do not have true navigation capabilities. This was shortsighted in the past, especially considering how cheap these chips are when bought in Apple numbers these days. Now, with Apple trying to use data from its users to bolster its own mapping solution, it’s penny wise and pound foolish. Considering that Apple needs as much map data as it can get, this policy no longer makes any sense at all. ALL Apple devices down to the iPod Touch need to have GPS included across the board, from now on.
Whatever Apple ultimately decides to do, they have their work cut out for them. My five suggestions here won’t bypass much of that hard work, but I think that they are fairly easy ways for Apple to smooth their path to a better mapping experience for iOS right now. We’ve already seen a few improvements made to Maps, but Tim Cook and Apple have been pretty quiet since their apologies about poor map data, and the subsequent management shakeup. However, with WWDC just over a week away, I wouldn’t be surprised to hear a mapping rumor or two make their way to the surface between now and then.
Until next time, when we will go over some potential changes to Siri and Dictation, safe travels. May your map lead you where you need to go, and the voice on the other end understand what you are saying.
What do you think about the current state of Apple Maps? What features would you like to see changed or added? What does Apple need to do to improve Maps in both the short term and the long term? I would love to hear your suggestions. Feel free to let me know in the comments below, or on Twitter @jhrogersii, or Google+.