Apple Maps: The FAQ

Q: Is this Apple’s Mapgate?

A: Yes.

Q: It is?

A: Most certainly is. Apple released a product which in its very first day didn’t have the coverage of Google Maps, which took about eight years to get here:

gmapsfail

Q: You’re exaggerating. Google Maps has the best user experience of any company in this business, does it not?

A: Yes it does, if you walk on water, like Google does from Alicante to Valencia in Spain:

Valencia1

Q: C’mon that must be old data.

A: Well, the map says it’s current:

Mapdate

Q: Maybe Google just didn’t get to it yet. Google Maps is in beta anyhow.

A: Yes, it must be:

Directions

Q: This is confusing.

A: No it’s not. It simply means Google Maps can and likely will get better. Just like Apple Maps.

Q: But Google Maps has been around for the better part of a decade.

A: Yes, mapping is hard.

Q: Then why did Apple kick Google Maps off the iOS platform? Wouldn’t Apple have been better off offering Google Maps even while it was building its own map app? Shouldn’t Apple have waited?

A: Waited for what? For Google to strengthen its chokehold on a key iOS service? Apple has recognized the significance of mobile mapping and acquired several mapping companies, IP assets and talent in the last few years. Mapping is indeed one of the hardest of mobile services, involving physical terrestrial and aerial surveying, data acquisition, correction, tile making and layer upon layer of contextual info married to underlying data, all optimized to serve often under trying network conditions. Unfortunately, like dialect recognition or speech synthesis (think Siri), mapping is one of those technologies that can’t be fully incubated in a lab for a few years and unleashed on several hundred million users in more than a 100 countries in a “mature” state. Thousands of reports from individuals around the world, for example, have helped Google correct countless mapping failures over the last half decade. Without this public exposure and help in the field, a mobile mapping solution like Apple’s stands no chance.

Q: So why not keep using a more established solution like Google’s?

A: Clearly, no one outside Mountain View and Cupertino can say who’s forced the parties to come to this state of affairs. Did Google, for example, want to extract onerous concessions from Apple involving more advertising leeway, user data collection, clickstream tracking and so on? Thanks to the largest fine in FTC’s history Google had to pay (don’t laugh!), we already know how desperate Google is for users’ data and how cavalier it is with their privacy. Maybe Apple didn’t like Google’s terms, maybe it was the other way around, perhaps both parties agreed it was best to have two separate apps available…we don’t know. After well-known episodes with Microsoft, Adobe and others, what we do know is that Apple has a justifiable fear of key third parties dictating terms and hindering its rate of innovation. It’s thus understandable why Apple would want to wrest control of its independence from its chief rival on its most important product line.

Q: Does Apple have nothing but contempt for its users?

A: Yes, Apple’s evil. When Apple barred Flash from iOS, Flash was the best and only way to play .swf files. Apple’s video alternative, H.264, wasn’t nearly as widely used. Thus Apple’s solution was “inferior” and appeared to be against its own users’ interests. Sheer corporate greed! Trillion words have been written about just how misguided Apple was in denying its users the glory of Flash on iOS. Well, Flash is now dead on mobile. And yet the Earth’s obliquity of the ecliptic is still about 23.4°. We seemed to have survived that one.

Q: So all you’re saying is that Apple Maps was rushed out the door even though it wasn’t quite ready?

A: As they say, every turn-by-turn direction starts with the first step. The longer Apple waits the harder it gets. From iPods to iTunes to iPhones to iOS, Apple’s modus operandi has been to introduce products and continuously improve them into widely attractive maturity by adding value without increasing prices, enlarging ecosystems, deepening integration and generally delighting users with a constant stream of innovations. With a user base fast approaching half a billion and thousands waiting in line to buy its latest product at this very moment, we empirically know this to be true. Why should Apple Maps be any different?

Yellowcake, Yellow Journalism and Android

In 2006, Vanity Fair summarized how the Bush administration orchestrated a series of thinly disguised propaganda moves to justify the invasion of Iraq:

Thewar

The War They Wanted, the Lies They Needed

The Bush administration invaded Iraq claiming Saddam Hussein had tried to buy yellowcake uranium in Niger. As much of Washington knew, and the world soon learned, the charge was false. Worse, it appears to have been the cornerstone of a highly successful “black propaganda” campaign with links to the White House.

There were innuendos, Congressional committee “testimonies,” off-the-record briefings, “experts” on TV, Italian connections and enough subterfuge to justify a decent Hollywood movie.

But most of all, there were journalists writing and talking about it everywhere. Without the benefit of fact checking. As “the world soon learned,” the U.S. went on to invade Iraq and, regardless of what you think about that decision, the cost in human lives and treasury has been devastating.

What color is Android?

What, you may ask, does this have to do with Android? Despite the smartphone wars everybody’s talking about, no lives are at stake and nobody’s going to thermonuclear war over Android.

Here’s how the Android yellowcake was sold:

Bestselling

Amazon told us the Kindle Fire was their best selling product on Black Friday and now some early Q4 numbers have arrived. A new report from iSuppli estimates that Amazon will ship 3.9 million units before the end of the year and Digitimes says that number could climb to as high as 5 million.

In a “Report” entitled, “Amazon selling 2,000 Kindle Fires every hour” the mainstream MSNBC.com syndicated a GeekWire.com piece:

Looks like Amazon.com has a hit on its hands, even before its new tablet computer is officially released to consumers.

The Seattle company is selling pre-orders for its new Kindle Fire tablets at a rate of 2,000 an hour, or more than 50,000 per day, according to website Cult of Android, which has gotten its hands on what it describes as internal Amazon inventory documents.

If the report is accurate, and the pace continues, Amazon will have sold 2.5 million Kindle Fires prior to the Nov. 15 launch — outpacing the first month of sales for either the iPad or the iPad 2, according to the site.

which referenced a website called CultofAndroid.com which referenced “leaked” documents:

Leaked

Even the generally more responsible The Verge couldn’t help itself repeat verbatim those Kindle Fire numbers. Numbers neither it nor any other publication had, because Amazon just doesn’t bother reporting them:

Kindle Fire remains Amazon’s best-selling item, million Kindle per week sales continue

Amazon just announced that it sold more than a million Kindle devices per week throughout December — that includes the Kindle, Kindle Touch, and Kindle Fire tablet. As usual for Amazon, no specific numbers were given, but the company says the Fire remains its best-selling and most-wished-for item, marking some 13 weeks that the Android-powered seven-inch tablet has held the top spot.

Are we there yet?

Indeed, if you read about the Kindle Fire around that time in any number of print or online publications, the unmistakable impression you’d get was: the Kindle Fire was selling in record numbers. So well in fact that same journalists would soon start telling Apple to come out with a 7″ tablet of its own or lose the iPad head-start, just like it “lost” its iPhone advantage.

And yet no journalist had any concrete evidence of the yellowcake: actual Android units sold. Not from Amazon, not from Samsung, not from HTC, not from Google…Nobody has actual Android unit numbers sold, quarter after quarter, in one of the biggest and most lucrative markets anywhere, which they’re supposed to be covering. No journalist has had the gumption to ask Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos or Google CEO Larry Page, “Sir, have you no sha, err, sales numbers to give us?” And keep asking until Amazon and Samsung and HTC and Google tell us just how well they are doing. Where’s the yellowcake?

I am, of course, not the only one on Twitter who objects to this charade of corporate secrecy in the name of openness:

Bevans1

Isn’t it time honorable journalists asked Google, whose mobile operating system was created primarily to harvest users’ private info, to report just how many Android units are actually sold every quarter, lest they be labeled yellow journalists carrying Google’s water in a link-baiting game?

Spirit of Siri at Apple 25 years ago

Siri

As a budding standup comedienne, Siri opened Apple’s WWDC 2012 Monday morning and concluded her act with the prophetic:

It’s really hard for me to get emotional, because as you can tell, my emotions haven’t been coded yet.

Clearly, Siri is a work in progress and she knows it. What others may not know, though, is that while Siri is a recent star in the iOS family, her genesis in the Apple constellation goes far back.

The Assistant and Assist

Nearly three decades ago, fluid access to linked data displayed in a friendly manner to mere mortals was an emerging area of research at Apple.

Samir Arora, a software engineer from India, was involved in R&D on application navigation and what was then called hypermedia. He wrote an important white paper entitled “Information Navigation: The Future of Computing.” In fact, working for Apple CEO John Sculley at the time, Arora had a hand in the making of the 1987 “Knowledge Navigator” video — Apple’s re-imagining of human-computer interaction into the future:

knowledge-navigator.jpg

Unmistakably, the notion of Siri was firmly planted at Apple 25 years ago. But “Knowledge Navigator” was only a concept prototype, Apple’s last one to date. Functional code shipped to users along the same lines had to evolve gradually over the next few years.

After the “Knowledge Navigator,” Arora worked on important projects at Apple and ran the applications tools group that created HyperCard and 4th Dimension (one of the earliest GUI-based desktop relational databases). The group invented a new proprietary programming language called SOLO (Structure of Linked Objects) to create APIs for data access and navigation mostly for mobile devices.

In 1992, Arora and the SOLO group spun off from Apple as Rae Technology, headquartered on the Apple campus. A year later, Rae Assist, one of the first Personal Information Managers (PIMs), was introduced. Based on 4th Dimension DB, Assist combined contact management, scheduling and note taking in an integrated package (automatically linking contact and company information or categorizing scheduled items, etc) for PowerBook users on the go. Although three versions of Assist were released in the following two years, Rae didn’t make any money in the PIM business. But as Rae also worked with large enterprise customers like Chevron and Wells Fargo in database-centric projects, the company realized the SOLO frameworks could also be used to design large-scale commercial websites:

SOLO is based on a concept that any pieces of data must accommodate the requirement of navigation and contextual inheritance in a database environment. In layman terms, it means that every piece of text, graphics and page is embedded with an implicit navigation framework based on the groupings or order in which the items are organized. In other words, a picture, which is a data object, placed in this programming environment will automatically know the concept of ‘next’ and ‘previous’ without having to write an explicit line of code. This simplifies the coding process. Since the information and business logic organization models were already completed for the client-software, converting this to a web application was simply a recompilation of the codes for a different delivery platform. The project was completed within four weeks and we were stunned as to how simple it was. This was an important validation point illustrating the portability of our technology for cross-platform development.

It wasn’t long before we realized that SOLO, a technology based on information organization models, could be adapted and modified for an application to build web sites. A prototype was developed immediately and soon after a business plan was developed to raise venture funding. NetObjects was founded.

Rae quickly applied for patents for website design software and transferred its technology IP to NetObjects. With seed money and the core team from Rae, NetObjects had a splashy entry into what later came to be known as Content Management Systems (CMS). Unfortunately, the rest was rough going for the fledging company. Not long after IBM invested about $100M for 80% of NetObjects, the company went public on NASDAQ in 1999. Heavily dependent on IBM, NetObjects never made a profit and it was delisted from NASDAQ. IBM sold it in 2001.

Outside Apple, SOLO traveled a meandering path into insignificance. Rae Technology became Venture Capital and NetObjects eventually atrophied.

Flying through WWW

Only three years after the SOLO group left Apple for Rae, Ramanathan V. Guha, a researcher in Apple’s Advanced Technology Group, started work on the interactive display of structured, linkable data, from file system hierarchy to sitemaps on the emerging WWW. Guha had earlier worked on CycL knowledge representation language and created a database schema mapping tool called Babelfish, before moving to Apple to work for Alan Kay in 1994.

His new work at Apple, Project X (HotSauce, as it was later called), was based on 3D representation of data that a user could “fly through” and Meta-Content Format (MFC), a “language for representing a wide range of information about content” that defined relationships among individual pieces of data. At an Apple event at the time, I remember an evangelist telling me that HotSauce will do for datasets what HTML did for text on the web.

Hotsauce

Apple submitted MCF to IETF as a standard for describing content and HotSauce (with browser plugins for Mac OS and Windows) found some early adopters. However, shortly after Steve Jobs’ return in 1997, it was a casualty of the grand house cleaning at Apple. Guha left Apple for Netscape, where he helped create an XML version of MCF, which later begot RDF (W3C’s Resource Description Framework) and the initial version of RSS standards.

It’s the metadata, stupid!

Even in its most dysfunctional years in the mid-199os, Apple had an abiding appreciation of the significance of metadata and the relationships among its constituent parts.

SOLO attempted to make sense of a user’s schedule by linking contacts and dates. HotSauce allowed users to navigate faceted metadata efficiently and with some measure of fun to find required information without having to become a data architect. The Assistant in the “Knowledge Navigator” had enough contextual data about its master to interpret temporal, geo-spatial, personal and other contextual bits of info to draw inferential conclusions to understand, recommend, guide, filter, alert, find or execute any number of actions automatically.

There is an app for that

A decade later, Apple was now in need of technology to counter Google’s dominance in search-driven ad revenue on its iOS platform. A frontal assault on Google Search would have been silly and suicidal, notwithstanding the fact that Apple had no relevant scalable search technology. But there was an app for that. And it was called Siri.

Siriold

Siri was a natural language abstraction layer accessed through voice recognition technology from Nuance to extract information from primarily four service partners: OpenTable, Google Maps, MovieTickets and TaxiMagic. Siri was on the iPhone first but it was headed to BlackBerry and Android. Apple bought Siri on April 28, 2010 and that original app was discontinued on October 15, 2011. Now Siri is a deeply embedded part of iOS.

Of course, the Siri code and the team came to Apple from an entirely different trunk of the semantic forest, from SRI International’s DARPA-funded Artificial Intelligence Center projects: Personalized Assistant that Learns (PAL) and Cognitive Assistant that Learns and Organizes (CALO), with research also conducted at various universities.

What made Siri interesting to Apple wasn’t the speech recognition or the simple bypassing of browser-based search, but the semantic relationships in structured and linkable data accessed through natural language. It was SOLO redux at scale and HotSauce cloaked in speech. It wasn’t meant to compete with Google in search results but to provide something Google couldn’t: making contextual sense.

Unlike Google, Siri knows, for example, what “wife” or “son’s birthday” means and can thus provide, not a long list of departures for further clicks, but precise answers. Siri delivers on the wildest dreams of SOLO and HotSauce of an earlier generation. In two years, even as limited to just a few service partners, Siri progressed far more than the developers of SOLO or HotSauce could have imagined. It now speaks the vast majority of the world’s most prominent languages, with connections to local data providers around the globe.

Having intimate conversations with Samuel Jackson and John Malkovich, Siri has become a TV star. Most iOS users already think Siri has a personality, if not an attitude all together. Hard to say what will happen when she actually gets her “emotions coded.”

Mapping Google’s FUD

While first encountered in writing in the 1920s, FUD is said to have been formally defined by Gene Amdahl nearly four decades ago after he left IBM to set up his own company, Amdahl Corp:

FUD is the fear, uncertainty, and doubt that IBM sales people instill in the minds of potential customers who might be considering Amdahl products.

Roger Irwin illustrates how Microsoft grabbed the FUD baton from IBM:

Of course the PC story is perhaps more a tale of big name marketing rather than deliberate FUD mongering, but the PC also brought Microsoft to the forefront as the supplier of the basic-in-ROM cum disk operating system. Microsoft soon picked up the art of FUD from IBM, and throughout the 80’s used FUD as a primary marketing tool, much as IBM had in the previous decade. They ended up out FUD-ding IBM themselves during the OS2 vs Win3.1 years.

A good example of MS FUD, and its potential, was demonstrated when Digital Research launched their DR DOS against MS-DOS5. DR-DOS offered more features and cost less, and was widely acclaimed by all. Then the new MS windows 3.1 release flashed up a trivial error message when run under DR DOS, and all of a sudden everybody was saying DR DOS is great but you can have problems running Windows on it. At the same time Microsoft announced the ‘imminent’ release of MS DOS6 which would be far more feature packed than DR DOS. In reality they had nothing, they had only just started looking at a ‘DOS 6′ in response to the DR launch, and it is also questionable whether the MS product was better. This classic FUD pack occurred together with a dealer package designed to make it financially advantageous to offer MS DOS with windows, and the result is history. Many believe this was the making of the MS monopoly.

A former Microsoft program manager, Joel Spolsky explains how Microsoft made a habit of FUDding competitors:

Think of the history of data access strategies to come out of Microsoft. ODBC, RDO, DAO, ADO, OLEDB, now ADO.NET – All New! Are these technological imperatives? The result of an incompetent design group that needs to reinvent data access every goddamn year? (That’s probably it, actually.) But the end result is just cover fire. The competition has no choice but to spend all their time porting and keeping up, time that they can’t spend writing new features.

Pre-Internet, FUD was easier to pull off for Microsoft:

  • Hold a press conference to pre-announce products not even half-finished or entirely nonexistent except as clip art in a product manager’s PowerPoint deck.
  • Give “exclusive” interviews to friendly tech reporters to generate one-sided stories without any counterpoints.
  • Buy advertising in “friendly” publications and other media read by decision-makers-with-checkbooks to reinforce the central FUD message.
  • Go astroturfing on mail-lists, forums and letters-to-the-editor sections through stealthily paid endorsers.

Of course, a lot has happened since the golden age of IBM and Microsoft FUD, namely the Internet and the fact that nobody really cares what IBM or Microsoft says or does any longer, especially in the consumer markets. Today, neither company is a market maker or has enough technical or business clout to dictate industry direction.

Enter Google

For several years now, I’ve been writing about how Google recognized the incredible opportunity presented to it by the rapid decline of Microsoft’s monopoly and how Google began to use Microsoftian tactics, predominantly featuring FUD, to buttress its market dominance:

In fact, none other than Vic Gundotra, former Microsoft chief evangelist and current Google+ czar, told BusinessWeek how FUD plays a critical role at Google:

In Silicon Valley, that kind of evangelism usually involves firing insults at the competition. While that hasn’t typically been Google’s style, Gundotra hasn’t shied away. As he says, “It’s an art to create a sense of inevitability.” In a keynote speech at a Google event for developers last year, he even took aim at Steve Jobs and “a draconian future where one man, one company, and one device would be our only choice. … That’s a future we don’t want.”

“It’s an art to create a sense of inevitability”

So how would the new FUDster Google attempt to discount a rival’s product announcement three days prior to the event? Why, hold a press conference, pre-announce “potential” products without ship dates and essentially “create a sense of inevitability”:

  • We cover so much of the earth (Hey, we’re bringing Map Maker to South Africa and Egypt today, and did you know you can get Street View in Antarctica? )
  • We have everything the competition may have and, just wait, we’ll have even more (You can download parts of maps to your mobile device for offline use, sometime in the future.)
  • Nobody else can do it as well as we can, because this thing is really hard (We managed to miniaturize all the stuff needed to capture Street View data into a backpack called the Street View Trekker, and did you know plate tectonics can lead to misalignments between different data sets?)
  • It takes a lot of money, people and resources to do this (Street View cars have now driven 5 million miles and collected 20 petabytes worth of image data, and did you know we even use a snowmobile to collect data?)
  • Everybody uses our products, we’re the safe choice (“communities of over 300 million people” will be using this stuff sometime soon.)
  • We’re not evil (Halo Trust uses Google Maps to mark where land mines are around the world, also did you know we once helped a tribe in the Amazon?)

Now, I know the work of mapping related companies Apple bought in the last few years and wrote about it two years ago in Apple, Google and the map wars. But I have no idea whether Apple will in fact offer a map product next week or how good it may be. It looks like Google thinks Apple will and it may be good enough to resort to FUD. That’s good enough for me.

I’ve heard Steve Ballmer laugh heartily at iPhone’s prospects: “There’s no chance that the iPhone is going to get any significant market share. No chance.” I’ve seen Vic Gundotra tell us “One man. One phone…” is “Not the Future We Want.” I’ve been scared by Android czar Andy Rubin evoking North Korean nightmares under an Apple regime. So excuse me if I can smell FUD even 2,945 miles away as the 3D Google Maps flies, I’m well trained.