The history of Apple Maps has proved more uneven than the tarmac on an unfinished freeway. Its launch in 2012 was controversial and much-maligned, and though it has improved out of all recognition since, news that it is being rebuilt is welcome. This was reported in an extensive and brilliant article by Matthew Panzarino at TechCrunch.
Let’s be clear, I really like Apple Maps. I think its design is more appealing than rivals, thanks to its gentle, understated-but-happy colors and elegant sense of proportion. For metropolitan journeys on public transportation I really prefer Citymapper, but that’s not available in every city. Overall, I find Apple Maps reliably good and accurate.
When the iPhone launched in June 2007, remember, it came with an app called Google Maps, though the Google bit in the name was soon dropped. Then, when iOS 6 launched in September 2012, the app was replaced by Apple’s own, which turned out to be unready.
Now, though, the new Maps is nearly with us. Panzarino talked to Apple SVP Eddy Cue, who explained that the new app will appear first in the next iOS 12 beta, though only with one tiddly bit of mapping, the Bay Area of San Francisco, with Northern California to follow.
There’s an interesting evolution here: Cue has previously said that it was the failings of Apple Maps which directly led to the introduction of public betas at Apple, to catch problems earlier. So, here’s the latest Maps, first seen in a public beta.
But the most interesting thing about the new Maps is that it will be Apple-owned. Completely. So, instead of using somebody else’s maps (TomTom’s) and other data from outside companies, Apple will do its own mapping in advanced camera-equipped cars which are already roaming U.S., U.K. and Irish streets. However, it’s worth noting that Reuters is reporting that Apple has said that TomTom will still be involved.
When it comes to creating its own maps, this makes sense. Apple likes to own everything it works on, rather than sharing other companies’ stuff.
And it’s as though Apple has had something of an epiphany in the last several years, recognizing that mapping features are crucial to more than just the Maps app itself. As Panzarino points out:
Because Maps are so core to so many functions, success wasn’t tied to just one function. Maps needed to be great at transit, driving and walking — but also as a utility used by apps for location services and other functions.
Cue says that Apple needed to own all of the data that goes into making a map, and to control it from a quality as well as a privacy perspective.
Apple, of course, always has privacy front-and-center, as a major priority. In a recent briefing with Apple about data protection as a response to the new European GDPR standards, I was told that every mapping interaction with a user is anonymised, and the first and last sections of every journey are left out of any data, so nobody’s personal movements are ever revealingly tracked.
So, what should we expect from the new Apple Maps?
First of all, it’ll take time to reveal itself completely, updating bit by bit with more data, including extra elements which were previously not seen in the app, such as swimming pools. There will be more detail in sporting areas, more advanced representations of buildings and so on.
The look may change in time, too, but for now Apple seems to be focusing on other aspects, such a making updates much, much faster when roads change, for instance. If a new road opens up, Cue suggested, the update to reflect this would be way quicker than it is now.
The new Apple vehicles with their cameras may be super-accurate, making for more detailed, richer mapping in due course. Although Apple didn’t talk about autonomous vehicles, raw data seen by Panzarino suggested that the level of detail would be of very high quality. Enough to train self-driving cars? We’ll see.
What’s not clear is if other features would become available soon, or ever. Years ago there were two companies with significant mapping, TeleAtlas and Navteq, later bought by TomTom and Nokia respectively. The third player, the one that changed everything, was Google, which made its own maps.
Nokia’s mapping became the basis for Here Maps which introduced one brilliant feature: offline navigation. This meant that people could use their smartphones as satellite navigation devices overseas without incurring crippling data roaming charges. You could download a whole country’s map in advance, for free.
Google has an offline feature now, too, though not as sweeping as Here offers. Will Apple have a setting to work data-free?
Nokia, by the way, no longer owns Here. The smartphone app, now called Here WeGo, is still freely available and is highly recommended. The app looks good, works well and has that brilliant offline capability. After all, the very time you want to use a navigation app is likely to be when you’re abroad.
Finally, the other striking new item here is that Apple seems confident about its Maps again, instead of apologetic. It would require a lot for it to overtake Google Maps, but I’d say Apple has that ambition dead in its sights.
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