Monday, June 11, 2012

Reaction to Apple Maps announcement

What they announced

As predicted by the entire world, Apple announced their new maps application today as part of iOS 6. You can see the keynote presentation of the video here, and Apple's summary information about the Maps app here. Overall my predictions from last week were pretty spot on :) ... they announced that it would have turn by turn directions with voice guidance, real time traffic information crowdsourced from other iPhones, and integration with Siri that would let you say you wanted to stop for gas (among other things). And then of course they showed 3D maps based on C3 technology that looked cool as everyone expected, but that was pitched as a cool extra rather than the main substance.

More detail on functionality

The basic 2D map display looked nice. It uses vector graphics so it allows for very smooth zooming and rotating, and labels rotate too. It includes a simple 3D mode, with basic gray buildings, similar to what Google Maps has.

They showed nice looking local search functionality. They said that they currently have about 100 million business listings. There was more detail for each listing than on the current Google Maps functionality, including Yelp reviews, photos and the ability to make restaurant reservations using OpenTable. Also when you zoom in close on the maps, you see points of interest displayed and can select them directly from the map.

The navigation functionality looked nice, and integrates with Siri as mentioned above. They also said that it will monitor traffic in real time and if the route ahead is congested it will tell you if it can identify a faster alternative route and give you the option to take that instead. With around 250 million iPhones sold, and no option to turn off the anonymous location tracking that contributes to the crowdsourced traffic information, Apple has a very rich source of data for its traffic information system, which is likely to be a strong advantage compared to its competitors. The navigation functionality continues to work on the lock screen when the phone is locked.

Another interesting development is that a good number of major car manufacturers have committed to adding a button on their steering wheel within the next 12 months that will activate Siri on your iOS device, which will make iOS devices even more attractive as in car devices.

The 3D views using the C3 technology indeed looked great and appeared to perform very well. They included functionality to rotate around a selected point of interest.

What it doesn't have

The most obvious thing missing from Apple Maps that Google Maps has is Street View. They also didn't mention anything about an offline mode, which Google announced last week. However, it's worth noting that in follow up conversations on Twitter, Ed Parsons said that there is no offline routing, which limits the usefulness of that (incidentally, I recently did a driving tour of southern Spain and used some software called iGo which has all its data stored offline, though with an option to connect to get traffic information, and I was impressed with how well it worked - this is just one of several third party apps that work offline). Another thing missing, which I use a lot on Google Maps on my iPhone, is routing using public transit. They said that they will have hooks for third parties to add transit apps into Maps, it will be interesting to see how that works and whether it provide a consistent user interface to transit information like Google does (I would guess not).

And of course, as expected, this is strictly an iOS application. For people developing web based mapping applications, like me, this won't impact what we're doing.

2D Street Data

One of the major questions among geo-geeks was what data source Apple would use for its maps. The street data is primarily from TomTom, as shown in this screen shot at Verge. This is as I predicted too - I'm a big fan of OpenStreetMap but it just isn't there yet in terms of completeness and quality for a global navigation focused application. TomTom and NAVTEQ (now part of Nokia) are the two established options and the only really viable ones for Apple to use for a direct replacement of Google Maps today.
There is quite a long list of other data sources they used here, which does include OpenStreetMap. As I mentioned in my previous post, this raises some interesting issues about licensing terms of OpenStreetMap data, in that if you enhance OpenStreetMap data the terms say you should make that data available under the original terms. Though on Twitter, Richard Fairhurst said:
@pmbatty Yes! My entirely personal opinion (FWIW) is that map share-alike on a "bulk aggregation" level is too complex => being ignored.
The list has quite a collection of other interesting data and sources too, including US parcel data from CoreLogic, satellite imagery from DigitalGlobe, Ordnance Survey and Royal Mail data from the UK, and data from Waze, Urban Mapping, Flickr, NGA, USGS and quite a few more - so quite a who's who of companies with interesting geospatial data.

Apple emphasized in its presentation that this was a worldwide initiative, and based on this list of data sources they should have pretty comprehensive global coverage for street data.

One interesting question is the nature of the relationship between Apple and TomTom. As I mentioned previously, Apple is anonymously tracking all iPhones, with no ability for people to opt out, so that is a hugely valuable resource for maintaining a street database. If you suddenly see lots of phones traveling at 30mph plus along a path that's not in your database, you know you need to make an update there. Or if the direction of traffic along a street isn't consistent with your "one way" data, you can see that immediately. So I would expect they have an agreement to feed this data back to TomTom (who have been using similar data fed back from their own navigation devices for some time). So this becomes quite a strategic relationship for both companies. One interesting question that has floated around on Twitter already is whether Apple might buy TomTom at some point. The market for dedicated navigation hardware will surely go away quite soon, with the capabilities of software that will run on phones and tablets. And there is also significant downward price pressure, especially now that both Apple on iOS and Google on Android provide navigation software for free. I would think that makes TomTom's longer term prospects questionable so you could certainly see a scenario where it might make sense for Apple to buy them.

3D data

One thing that Apple wasn't very specific about is the coverage for the cool looking 3D data. This will presumably start with a small number of cities and expand over time. In the demo they showed San Francisco and Sydney. In the bookmark pulldown that flashed up briefly, I saw the following cities listed:
  • Montreal, Canada
  • Seattle, WA
  • Copenhagen, Denmark
  • Miami, FL
  • Melbourne, Australia
  • Chicago, IL
  • Los Angeles, CA
  • Las Vegas, NV
No guarantee that all of these have 3D data of course, but seems like a reasonable bet that they all do.


Overall I think it looks like Apple has done a nice job with the new maps application. It's missing Street View and transit directions are being left to third parties so it remains to be seen how that will work out. But search for points of interest adds some nice features like Yelp and OpenTable integration, turn by turn directions with voice guidance and Siri integration is a huge plus for existing iPhone users, and the 3D view adds wow factor, if being of questionable usefulness. So overall I think that the great majority of the 250 million or so iPhone users will switch to using Apple Maps when iOS 6 comes out. It will be interesting to see if Google continues to offer Google Maps on the iPhone, and if so whether they will give it the same features as the Android version, in particular the turn by turn navigation features. It is hard to imagine that they wouldn't (assuming they continue to offer it), as otherwise it would be at a strong disadvantage to the Apple Maps app. In their event last week they did specifically talk about offering new features on iOS, so presumably they will. Some had speculated about whether Apple would allow them to continue, but there are already many third party mapping and navigation applications, so I think it is unlikely that they wouldn't.

I am currently upgrading my iPad to the beta version of iOS 6, so I hope to be able to do a hands on report fairly shortly. There is no going back to iOS 5 apparently, so fingers crossed that it will work out!

Update: I also recommend reading Mark Prioleau's commentary.


Anonymous said...

It's crazy how people alway go woooo if it's Apple. An example is that Nokia offers already since 2009 most of the features that Apple now provides but did not even got mentioned in yourarticle...We really live in a Barbie world...there's Barbie and there's Ken - nothing else...

nolajon said...

Peter, do you think that perhaps Google would opt not to provide turn by turn directions on the iPhone Google Maps app in order to differentiate Android from iOS? Granted, it makes Google Maps less competitive on the iPhone, but has the potential of making Android more competitive with iOS if Google were to keep Google Maps competitive with features such as the transit routing or other new features they may come up with.

rkgeorge said...

From a dev perspective Apple Maps just adds to platform fragmentation. Unfortunately, some of the helpful cross-platform solutions like PhoneGap and RhoMobile are experiencing - flat rejection from Apple appstore, and curious incompatibilities with iOS6 beta.

This might come back to bite Apple. Historically, keeping an expansive dev commmunity healthy and happy was a competitive advantage - I'm thinking AutoDesk, Microsoft, Google etc

Not sure how much this applies now, but Apple has been vulnerable to elitism in the past. Curiously Microsoft has only recently reversed engines on that score.

Peter Batty said...

@nolajon Google might go down the route of providing better capabilities on Android to try to improve Android sales, but if they did do that then they probably might as well pull the iPhone app altogether, rather than providing a more limited version that was less competitive with the new Apple app. It will be interesting to see how it all shakes out.

Anonymous said...

Google can't pull the iPhone app because it didn't write it in the first place. Like YouTube, it was always Apple code using Google data/services.