Apple and Google’s ongoing competition in the mobile device market has entered new terrain, quite literally, thanks to Apple’s decision to unveil its own mobile map application, simply titled “Maps,” on Monday. The app will be available as part of Apple’s new mobile operating system, iOS6, which is scheduled for release in the fall.
The new mapping product severs Apple’s five-year-long dependence on Google Maps as the default provider of location and direction data to iPhone and iPad users. Every iPhone beginning with the original version of the device launched in 2007 has had a Google Maps icon on its home screen, an icon that could not be deleted.
But now Apple has gone ahead and done just that, following in the footsteps of other big name web brands including Foursquare and Wikipedia that have abandoned Google Maps in the past year, following Google’s decision to begin charging for heavy use customers of its Google Maps application programming interface (API), of which presumably Apple would be one.
Some in the burgeoning digital mapmaking industry believe that the fight between Google and Apple’s mapping software will actually be good for them.
“I think that it’s exciting for the industry,” said Terry Keating, the chief technology officer and senior VP at digital mapping and surveying company AeroMetric, in a phone interview with TPM. “It adds to the overall thirst for more and more details.”
Specifically, Keating said that his firm’s primary customer base — railroad and highway engineers, plant operators and other infrastructure project managers — would be prompted by the new detailed 3D maps of metropolitan areas offered by the likes of Google and Apple to request site-specific 3D renderings of pipelines and power or production plants, renderings that must be far more accurate than those provided by Apple and Google for the consumer market.
“Railroad engineers and highway engineers need accuracy to within one-tenth of a foot,” Keating told TPM. “They need very very precise elevation data. These [Google and Apple] don’t quite get to that level of precision.”
AeroMetric, founded in Sheboygan, Wisconsin, is a leading American “geospatial solutions” company, which provides custom, high-resolution, ultra-precise digital maps and other survey data primarily to industrial clients, such as engineering firms and government agencies. The company has no existing business relationships with Apple or Google, Keating said. But he was still complimentary of Apple’s new Maps application.
“The presentation modes that Apple has developed and released are generally forward-looking,” Keating said. “Apple has had an opportunity for years to see how Google has been presenting maps and how Microsoft has been presenting maps, and so now they are using what they’ve learned and trying to do better.”
Google Maps has been around since February 2005. On June 6 the company unveiled its own 3D maps update for desktop computers, saying that mobile versions for Android devices and Apple devices would follow. Microsoft’s Bing mapping software has been around since 2005, with 3D views available since 2007.
The Monday announcement of Apple Maps, anticipated by tech reporters in the days and weeks prior, was overshadowed to some extent among the various new software and hardware updates shown-off at the company’s Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC) in San Francisco.
But it’s clear the Apple is proud of and confident in its new product, which, besides serving the now-expected function of providing real-time directions and traffic information to users, also boasts the added features of turn-by-turn directions (previously available on Google Maps for Android), the ability to be controlled using Apple’s voice-activated digital assistant, Siri, and more detailed, manipulatable 3D views of major metropolitan areas.
Small wonder that Apple openly boasts its new Maps app “may” be the “the most beautiful, powerful mapping service ever.”
But there are some big questions that have yet to be answered about Apple’s new mapping service, specifically, whether Apple will be able to replicate Google’s massive trove of location listings data, everything from restaurant reviews to store hours.
“I’m not sure whether Apple is using some of the same technology [as Google] or other address information provided by the U.S. Census or whether they’ll have their own separate data set,” Keating told TPM. “I also don’t know whether they’ll be more stable in terms of updates, it’s a significant burden to do that.”
A webpage posted online on Monday that includes an Apple copyright lists several other data sources, including Dutch GPS device company TomTom and the global open-sourced mapping effort known as OpenStreetMap. Apple previously used OpenStreetMap data for its first departure from Google Maps, in its iPhoto application for the iPad.
“I don’t know any more as yet but I’m sure that our mappers will be looking at it,” said Richard Fairhust, a board member at the OpenStreetMap (OSM) Foundation in the UK, which coordinates the crowdsourced map, in an email to TPM.
“Realistically I don’t think anyone expected OSM to be the major data source for iOS 6,” Fairhurst added. “Turn-by-turn navigation has been identified as the main missing feature from previous iOS maps, and OSM’s coverage of turn restrictions etc. in the States (Apple’s crucial market, of course) has not yet developed to the level of the big two commercial providers. But we will be intrigued to see what there might be in there.”
Apple did not respond to inquiries about its Maps app in time for this article’s publication.