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.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Apple Maps: Predictions and Questions

Today's Google Maps event pretty much confirmed all the speculation that has been going on about Apple announcing their own mapping product next week. As I discussed in a post earlier today, I was underwhelmed by Google's announcements, and the overwhelming message I took away was that Google was concerned about Apple's plans. In this post I'll get into some detail on some predictions about the Apple Maps product, and discuss some questions that I think are important.


It's interesting to note that Apple has been working on this Maps application for a long time. They acquired PlaceBase in July 2009, three years ago, and with this got typical 2D mapping capabilities, similar to Google Maps. They acquired Poly9 two years ago, in July 2010 - there they got virtual globe technology, similar to Google Earth. The third piece of the puzzle was C3 Technologies who were acquired last year and brought very cool software for capturing photo-realistic 3D models.

If you haven't seen videos of C3, here are some examples:

This is an interesting one explaining some basics of how the original technology works (also similar to what Google showed today). C3 was originally part owned by SAAB, which is why this video has a SAAB label on it.


This section is part prediction, and in some case perhaps more wish list!

3D is not necessarily the most important thing about this

Most of the speculation has focused on 3D capabilities, which will undoubtedly be "cool", based on what we already know about C3. But 3D really isn't relevant for the most common use cases for a consumer smart phone mapping application - like the proverbial find me the nearest bar / restaurant / coffee shop. Apple can't afford to boot out Google Maps unless they have the basic functionality covered that's in the current application. I think there will probably be other notable improvements beyond the 3D capabilities. I'll come back later to whether the 3D stuff will be useful as opposed to just "cool". With Apple's focus on user experience, it will be a surprise if they haven't made sure they have the basics covered very well.

Real time traffic information will be a big deal

After the iPhone "LocationGate" saga last year, Apple issued a response on what location data they did and didn't collect. One item that I thought would get a lot more attention than it did was point 8, which stated that "Apple is now collecting anonymous traffic data to build a crowd-sourced traffic database with the goal of providing iPhone users an improved traffic service in the next couple of years". There is no option to turn this off, which to me is a surprisingly aggressive approach. Apple has sold somewhere around 200 to 250 million iPhones. That's one heck of a sensor network, that has been anonymously tracking every iPhone user for over a year, quite possibly for quite a lot longer. Google has done this for a while too, but with an opt in approach, and also requires Google Maps to be running on the phone (so far as I know this is still the case). So Apple likely has access to a much larger database of both real time and historical location tracking information than anyone else. This should let them provide excellent very granular traffic information in their new application.

It is also likely that Apple has been using this location data to validate and refine their mapping data - I'll discuss more about data sources below.

Apple Maps will have turn by turn navigation with voice

I haven't seen this discussed much in most speculation, but currently Google offers turn by turn voice guidance in its Maps application on Android but not on iPhone. This is obviously one of the most important pieces of location functionality for most consumers, so addressing the lack of this "out of the box" will be a big plus for iPhone users. There are plenty of third party apps that provide this capability of course, but they cost money (in most cases), and the user has to hunt around to find and install those. The way that data licensing works from the traditional data vendors like NAVTEQ (now part of Nokia) and Tele Atlas (now part of TomTom) is that it costs a lot more money if you want to do turn by turn directions with it, so it will be interesting to see where Apple gets its data from (again, more on this shortly).

Navigation will have integration with Siri

Voice interaction with Siri would be a great enhancement to a standard navigation system, for two way conversation. The user could say "I want to stop for gas", or the navigation system might say to the user that traffic is congested ahead and offer them a choice of alternative routes that they could select by voice response. This would be another area where Apple could have capabilities ahead of what is available elsewhere.

So will this 3D stuff actually be useful?

Apple is making a major investment in this mapping application, and taking quite a risk to go head to head with Google, who have been doing this for ages (in Internet time). Would they put this big a bet on 3D for purely cosmetic reasons? One area where I think that 3D could be genuinely useful is for navigation, especially on foot. When you come out of a building or (especially) a subway / metro / underground station, it often takes a little while to orient yourself and confirm that you are heading in the right direction using a traditional 2D map. A photorealistic 3D model could help point you in the right direction in a more intuitive way. The same could be true, perhaps to a lesser degree, with in vehicle navigation - it could certainly be helpful to see a 3D model, correctly oriented, of where you make your next turn.

There might (or might not) be an interesting clue in a conversation I had with some of the C3 folks at a conference a while back (before they were acquired). One of them mentioned to me then that they were talking to someone who was very interested in applying their technology more to street level imagery than to aerial imagery (the latter is where we've mainly seen C3 used prior to their acquisition).

Having photorealistic 3D models could also be very helpful in the next generation of augmented reality applications, to supplement location and direction sensors on the phone with image recognition.


Where will the data come from (2D maps)?

One interesting question is where the 2D map data will come from. The simplest and probably lowest risk option for Apple would be to buy data from NAVTEQ (now part of Nokia) or Tele Atlas (part of TomTom). This is fairly expensive, but Apple is not short of money, and either are pretty well proven options. Google caused a big stir in the industry when they dropped Tele Atlas in the US in 2009, in favor of creating and maintaining their own data. There were a few initial glitches and plenty of folks in the geospatial industry speculated about whether Google had bitten off more than it could chew with this approach, but it seems to have worked out just fine for them.

Recently Apple switched to non-Google map data within iPhoto, which came from "OpenStreetMap and other sources". This obviously raises the question of whether they might use those same maps in their new application. However, while OpenStreetMap data is excellent in many places, and continues to improve rapidly, it's not quite there yet to provide a comprehensive and consistent global database, especially for address search and routing, both of which are very important for a Google Maps replacement. Apple could have been using its massive database of iPhone location traces to validate and improve routing information (similar to the approach that Waze uses). However, if Apple had enhanced OSM data using an approach like this, they would be obliged under the licensing terms to make the enhanced data freely available under the original terms. With their recent usage of OSM in iPhoto, it took some time for Apple to give the required credit to OSM, so either they didn't pay too much attention to the terms or thought they could just ignore them. If they have used OSM data for some element of their data and enhanced it, but not made it freely available, that would open up an interesting legal can of worms. The OSM foundation wouldn't have the resources to take on Apple in a legal battle, but Microsoft and/or Google might be motivated to sue Apple, either to get access to the data or just to cause disruption for Apple.

But overall with Apple's focus on user experience, it seems unlikely that they would use a dataset where there was any obvious step back from the current experience with Google Maps.

Where will the data come from (3D maps)?

Clearly C3 can do a great job of building high precision 3D models from imagery. But Apple needs to acquire the imagery from somewhere, whether aerial or street level or both. Unlike with 2D data, where comprehensive coverage is an absolute requirement to replace Google, they could start with coverage for a small number of cities and grow from there, just as Google did with Street View. Google emphasized the extent of their data coverage in their event today, so clearly they feel they will have an advantage here initially (and it's only reasonable to expect that with a new system like this). There has been talk of including building interiors in this 3D model also, which would be interesting.

Perhaps the most exciting possibility in the 3D data creation area though would be if users could contribute to a crowdsourced 3D dataset by taking pictures (or videos) with their iPhones. This is not beyond the bounds of possibility - look at existing applications like PhotoSynth and others. Even if Apple is not there yet, this is an intriguing possibility for the future. I talked about this sort of photo (and video) integration with geospatial data in my recent keynote talk at GeoAlberta (starting at around 32:30).

Beyond Apple Platforms?

Another important question is whether Apple Maps will be supported on non-iOS platforms. I suspect that the answer is probably not in the short term at least. This would seem like another effort by Apple to differentiate iOS. Both the iPhone and iPad are great platforms for mapping apps. So there will remain a significant space in the market for cross-platform web applications which Apple likely won't be addressing, in the short term at least.

Programming Interface / application platform?

Another key question is whether Apple Maps will just be a closed consumer focused application, like the current Google Maps for iOS, or will it have mechanisms for developing your own applications and incorporating your own data. This might or might not be there on day one, but given Apple's success with the app store, I would expect that there would at the very least be libraries of mapping functionality available to developers to incorporate into their own iOS applications. This would be a more heavyweight proposition than the sort of lightweight mashups that can be easily created with the Google Maps API and other similar JavaScript libraries, but would nevertheless create a large application development ecosystem, given the number of iOS app developers.


It will be very interesting to see exactly what Apple does announce next week. Apple has sold somewhere between 200 and 250 million iPhones, and around 70 million iPads. Unless Apple does a really horrible job with the new Maps app, this means around 250 to 300 million users will almost all switch from using Google Maps to Apple Maps when iOS 6 comes out (following the path of least resistance). Even if Apple doesn't provide any web based functionality (which I think is likely), if it does provide mapping libraries for iOS developers (which I also think is likely), this will very probably represent a substantial shift in how and where geospatial applications are developed. As I said in my previous post, this increased competition for Google should push them, Apple and others to develop even more innovative and interesting things in the future. Exciting times!

Google announces that it is scared of Apple Maps

As mentioned earlier, Google held a press event this morning to talk about the "next dimension of Google Maps", with a timing that is clearly intended to pre-empt Apple's expected mapping announcement next week. The first part of the talk was given by Brian McLendon, and included both some interesting history and some very interesting information on how Google creates and maintains its map data. That confirmed a number of things I'd suspected but which I hadn't heard Google discuss openly before. There was a very interesting screen shot showing the amount of data of various types that they capture from their street view cameras. And there were a number of interesting statistics about the amount of data they have captured and how that has grown.

So far there doesn't seem to be a recorded version of the event on youtube, I will post a link if and when this appears. Update: at the moment the original (unlisted) live recording is here, it starts 30 minutes in (thanks to Rob Booth). Update 2: what seems to be the official post-event recording is now here (incidentally I checked and they edited out the bit where the Android application crashed in the live broadcast :) ... the clue is at 44:08 where he says "here we are again" and we hadn't been there before in this version!).

A key aim of this section was obviously to convey to non-geo-geeks how much work it is to create and maintain map data - to position people to ask some of the right questions of Apple about their data coverage, accuracy, etc when they launch next week. And it did a pretty good job of that.

However, when it came to the substance of the announcements, they were fairly slim, in my opinion - certainly not enough to justify the heavy hype ahead of time. There were three main announcements:
  • Google Maps for Android will work offline, letting you download a predefined area ahead of time. This is certainly a useful feature, but nothing new. There have been dozens of applications that have worked offline for years - OffMaps is a long time favorite of mine, which I reviewed on my blog back in July 2009. And a week or so ago when I was driving around the south of Spain on vacation, I used iGo on my iPad, which has offline navigable data for all of western Europe (and versions for other parts of the world). Even Google Maps for Android could download routes offline back in late 2010. So having Google Maps available offline is nice, but something where they're playing catchup.
  • The Google Street View camera can now be carried in a backpack weighing 40 pounds. So the hardware is getting smaller, well duh! It's still some way from being practical for consumers though. So really no big news. Now if somebody announced that you could contribute to a crowdsourced street-view-like model with just a smart phone, that would be interesting news! (I wonder who might be a good candidate to provide that?!)
  • Google showed a new capability to have cool looking 3D models of buildings, which will be available at some point in the future (later this year for some cities, but not much in the way of specifics). This was cool, but looked remarkably similar to technology that C3 had two years ago. C3 is one of the companies that Apple acquired, and which will presumably form a key element of what they announce next week. Here's a video of the C3 technology on an iPad at CES in January 2011:

You can compare this with a similar Google video posted today:

So all in all the Google announcements were just about them playing catch up with things that have been around for a couple of years. The pre-announcement of the 3D model capabilities is very obviously to defuse the expected Apple announcement. As I said on twitter right afterwards, I was rather underwhelmed in the end, and most of all left with the impression that Google is worried about what Apple is about to announce.

Tom MacWright put it more concisely on Twitter, saying:
Google announces that it is very, very scared of next week.
Now don't get me wrong, Google is the market leader and Apple has everything to prove. As Google discussed in the first part of their event, and those of who have been in the geo industry for a while know only too well, there are some difficult challenges in creating and maintaining geospatial data, and it will be interesting to see how Apple has chosen to approach some of these challenges. Showing some sexy 3D models for one or two cities only scratches the surface. I also think it's unlikely that Apple will provide a web based platform for applications like Google has, so they're only addressing certain aspects of their market.

But nevertheless it's interesting to see the market leader in the space acting so scared. But I suppose I'd be concerned too even if I was the size of Google, if I knew I was about to lose 250 million users or so when iOS 6 comes out, and had somebody with more money than the US Treasury about to stomp into my market. We definitely live in interesting times in the geospatial industry, and the competition between Apple and Google will surely be good in pushing them both to do even better things.

Tomorrow I'll post some more detailed thoughts on what Apple is likely to offer, and some of the challenges they need to address. Update: see my predictions here.

Today the mapping wars escalate

The next week is going to be an interesting one for the geospatial industry. It's not every week that the world's most valuable company enters your industry with a fanfare, but next week at its worldwide developer conference, Apple is expected to announce its own mapping application to replace Google Maps as the primary mapping app on iPhones and iPads. This has been anticipated for quite some time, with Apple making a number of geospatial acquisitions over the last couple of years, including Placebase, Poly9 and C3. There was some detailed coverage about a new mapping product in iOS 6 "with incredible 3d mode" from 9 to 5 Mac a few weeks ago. And now there is a flurry of articles from the Wall Street Journal (subscription needed for full article), NPR, and many more.

Of course Google has been the dominant player in mapping applications for the past several years and they're not going to take this lying down. Today they are holding an invitation only event for press in Mountain View on the "next dimension of Google Maps", expected to talk about new 3D features in Google Maps. Ed Parsons of Google tweeted this morning that it will be a "big news day for Google Geo".

This should certainly make life even more interesting in the geospatial industry. Up to this point, Microsoft has been the main challenger to Google in the maps arena. They've occasionally come up with some significant innovation, like their 3D building models that came from the acquisition of Vexcel, but then faded away again, or PhotoSynth which is really cool technology with enormous potential for 3D mapping and augmented reality, but which hasn't yet really transitioned beyond a cool standalone application. But Microsoft has never really seemed to me to quite get its act together well enough on the mapping front  to really have a good claim to challenge Google as the industry leader.

I think Apple will mount a much more serious challenge to Google on the consumer mapping front, and I'll write more about what I think they might bring in the next day or two (I think it will have significance in other areas beyond 3D). One thing that will be interesting to see though is how much of a platform for other applications the Apple offering will include. Google Maps of course has a well developed API for building other applications, which Ubisense uses extensively in our myWorld application. Stay tuned for what promises to be an interesting week!

Update: see my follow up posts on the Google announcements and more detailed predictions and questions about Apple Maps.