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!


Anonymous said...

Thought-provoking ideas Peter, and it will be interesting to see what does eventuate at WWDC. All that I have read and heard says there will not be the major device launches as of old, but IOS will likely be debuted. Given it is a developers conference it makes sense for development tools and libraries to be presented, and a new UIMapKit with links to an Apple map data source would be a likely new feature. Anyway, we'll know in a week or so.

Anonymous said...

Still I wonder if Apple would create turn-by-turn, while there are already apps for that. Firstly Apple already receives revenue from these apps, with the TomTom iOS app being the top grossing app in the entire appstore.

Secondly it would cause a stir among app developers. I don't think Apple would want to harm relationships with app developers, like TomTom.

Rather they would create tools for the developers community to use. And replace the Google API with an Apple API.

acuth said...

I follow what you say about about comprehensive 2D map tiles and 3D views of selected cities but are there any alternatives to Google's Street View?

Peter Batty said...

@Anonymous it's a perennial challenge for platform vendors and developers working on those platforms. Almost always the platform vendor will make enhancements that make existing applications obsolete (or at least less relevant). There are lots of examples of this as Apple has enhanced or added to its built in apps. Turn by turn directions is a core piece of functionality that Android has out of the box and iPhone doesn't, I think they will add this.

Peter Batty said...

@Adrian the way I see the C3 technology, I think that Apple will have a continuous photorealistic 3D view that works from an aerial or street perspective. Street View is in many ways just an intermediate step towards a full 3D model, giving you a 3D-like view from certain spots. I think Apple will supersede that with a 3D view from anywhere. It will have the same challenge I talk about here of how widely available it is - as I mention the real way to overcome it will be if they can build models using crowdsourced imagery from iPhones.

Harry Wood said...

I'm looking forward to the day when masses of mobile and web developers suddenly come to the realisation that there's more to maps than google maps.

I hope this will lead to a much wider conversation on why map data can't be free and open at the level of vector data, followed by a wider realisation that it can be! (OpenStreetMap)

Mr Jeff Thurston said...

Hi Peter - interesting and thought provoking.

With Microsoft steering away from HTC now, this adds another wrench into the works. I'm with you that 3D augmented reality is going to be a big thing. It seems all Apple signs point to very rich markup tools for cartographic products in the Apple realm. I can't help but think we will cross a new cartographic threshold here somehow.

Jeff Thurston

Anonymous said...

Great article. It will be very interesting indeed to see where they go. I agree that AR will be big soon and with Google also enhancing 3d model and investing in projects such as Glass it looks like the Apple / Google war for content and device platforms will intensify.

phil francis said...

Great article. It will be very interesting indeed to see where they go. I agree that AR will be big soon and with Google also enhancing 3d model and investing in projects such as Glass it looks like the Apple / Google war for content and device platforms will intensify.

Stu Mitchell said...

Really enjoyed reading this article.

One thing that I was wondering beyond this was, what about all the apps that currently use the API or those that launch maps via a URL flung at iOS? Will Apple Maps launch instead (using the same parameters), or will there be a period of parallel running? WIll we see Google Maps and Apple Maps run for the duration of iOS 6 until iOS 6.1?

All very exciting stuff...


GrahamS said...

"There is no option to turn this off..."

Settings->Location Services->System Services->Traffic

Peter Batty said...

@Graham thanks for that - this is a new option in iOS 6 I take it? I don't believe that's there in iOS 5, even though they are capturing traffic info from iPhones currently. But if this is correct I think that's good that they are providing more options to manage location privacy.