Apple Maps: The Next Turn

Maps have changed.

Cartography used to be fairly simple and largely a novelty:


Unimaginable to the users of that Genoese world map from 1457, today’s maps are used daily by hundreds of millions of ordinary people around the globe to accomplish what’s now regarded as pedestrian tasks, like 3D flyovers:

Flyover nyc

Indeed, in the post-PC era maps have ceased to be cartographic snapshots of the Earth’s terrain and become spatial portals to a vast array of virtual services:

  • Wayfinding — In the not-too-distant future, the principal feature of maps may no longer be wayfinding. Yes, we still want to go from A to B and know where B is and what’s around it. Today, however, we also want to know not just what, but who among our social network is around B, even before we get there. And we want to know not just how to get to B, but by what modalities of transportation, when, how fast, etc.
  • Discovery — Knowing “what’s where” is clearly no longer enough. We want to see 2D, 3D, panoramic and synthetically composited photographs taken yesterday (and 50 years ago to compare) sprinkled around the map. We want to see strangers’ virtual scribblings and audio recordings left at particular coordinates. We want to know where our favorite brand of coffee or most scenic bike path may be located. We want to read all the news and tweets around a dropped pin. We want locals facts accessed on a map even before we asked for them.
  • Commerce — Today we want our maps to not only show us places, but also let us shop directly. We want to tap a restaurant on a map, get its ratings and book a reservation right then and there. We want geo-fencing to alert us automatically as the GPS tracker on our map gets near a commercial point of interest, show us a discount coupon even before we walk in and get ready for a quick transaction. We want a virtual check-in on a map converted into real-life currency discount at a retailer.
  • Integration — We’re no longer satisfied with “cartography as content”. Our maps are now intention harvesting funnels. When we ask Maps via Siri a very simple question like “How is the traffic?” we’d love for her to know 1) we have a trip planned to see 2) our mother in 3) two hours, and we usually take 4) a particular route and we’re really asking about the traffic conditions 5) at our mother’s, so that we can get 6) alternate routes if it’s unusually busy. Maps without deep semantic correlation (public: directions, routing, traffic, and private: calendar, contacts, navigation history, etc.) are not part of the future we want.
  • Entertainment — This is no longer the 14th century or the 20th, so we want to experience places without being there. We want our maps to talk to us. We want to virtually fly over not just our neighborhood, but places we may never visit. We want to tour inside malls, stores and offices without moving off our couch. We want to submerge and commune with sea turtles — all within a “map” on a tiny computer we hold in our hand.

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Not A Mapmaker

We could go on listing just how profoundly our expectations of what a map is have changed and will continue to expand. Apple understands this more than most companies, but Apple hasn’t been a mapmaker and knows it. Five years ago, Steve Jobs himself favored partnering with companies like Google, for search and mapping backend services:


Jobs wasn’t likely thrilled to have to rely on Google or any other company for these services, but others had a significant head-start in digital maps, and Apple had its hands full reinventing the phone at the time. The intervening five years brought Apple unprecedented success with the iPhone but also a well known systems design problem: it’s very hard to change user habits and expectations once set in. Due to contractual circumstances now being breathlessly analyzed in the media, Apple finds itself having to part with an app powered by a one-time partner, now its chief rival. Regardless, users are rarely comfortable with the loss of what’s familiar, no matter how rationally justifiable the reasons might be. Enter, Mapgate.

Is old new again?

In his open letter on Maps, Tim Cook positioned Apple’s new mapping effort as “Maps 2.0”:

We launched Maps initially with the first version of iOS. As time progressed, we wanted to provide our customers with even better Maps including features such as turn-by-turn directions, voice integration, Flyover and vector-based maps. In order to do this, we had to create a new version of Maps from the ground up.

In other words, Apple seems to be not so much reinventing Maps, as evolving it into parity with its now more feature-rich cousin on Android, and, this time, without Google’s help — a tall task, given Google’s eight-year head start. In this seemingly catch-up game, rapidly increasing accuracy and coverage appear to be Apple’s first order of business.

Mapbusters, who you gonna call?

A company in Apple’s current predicament could have followed a number of curative paths. It could have hired the equivalent of more than 7,000 mapping related personnel Google is said to employ to gather, analyze and correct data. However, for other than its retail stores, Apple has no history of hiring so many personnel (8% of its entire head count) for such a narrow operation.

Unlike Google (Big Table), Facebook (Cassandra), Yahoo (Hadoop), Amazon (Dynamo) and others that have accumulated big data storage, processing and operational expertise, Apple’s not been a magnet for data scientists or web-scale infrastructure, automation, real-time analytics and algorithm design professionals. Facebook, for example, can bring online tens of thousands of servers in less than a month in an automated fashion, Apple continues to lag, underperform and underwhelm in this area.

Instead, Apple could acquire a mapping company. Unfortunately, there aren’t a lot of those around. Neither does Apple have a history of buying companies just to get process oriented employees. It’s telling that Apple hasn’t bought any of the companies it currently gets mapping data from, like Tom Tom or Waze. Further, Apple uses multiple map data sources abroad such as AutoNavi in China.

Apple could augment its accuracy efforts by crowdsourcing corrections through OpenStreetMaps, which it’s already been using elsewhere. But OSM may not scale as fast as Apple would like and, more importantly, may pose licensing issues in the future. Another avenue for Apple is to get much more aggressive and encourage a hundred million iOS 6 Maps users to actively send map corrections and suggestions to earn accumulating incentives such as App Store or iTunes credits, iOS device prizes, free trips and so on.

But these acquisition or incentive based approaches are ultimately process oriented remedies not in Apple’s DNA. You can expect, say, Microsoft wanting to code for, test and manage thousands of models, peripherals, drivers and legacy bug exceptions for Windows as they have done for a couple of decades…Apple not so much.

Of course having good map data by itself is not good enough. Apple has to decide if it really wants to clone feature by feature what has become very familiar to its own Maps 1.0 users. That is, would Apple really want to spend all its time, resources and focus to clone Google Maps (on Android) because some of its most vocal users are asking back what was degraded in iOS 6 Maps?

Playing by its rivals’ rules hasn’t been Apple’s modus operandi. Apple often enters a semi-mature industry underserved by system design and rearranges constraints and possibilities to create unique products. More recently, for example, everyone has been busy adding NFC chips to smartphones to rejigger the entire payment industry, full of entrenched players. Apple remained agnostic on payment modalities and ignored NFC, but reimagined everything else around payments: rewards, promotions, cards, tickets, coupons, notifications…all wrapped in a time-and-location based framework, thereby opening up new avenues of growth, integration and deeper ties to users in the form of its new app Passbook. In the same vein, can Apple reimagine and redefine what mobile “mapping” ought to be?


Fortuitously, Apple has another systems design problem in its hands, not unlike Maps. If Maps has become the gateway to mobility, iTunes has been Apple’s portal to content. iTunes started as a single-screen song organizer. On the desktop, it’s still a single-screen app, but has grown to cover the storage, backup, authentication, transaction, discovery, promotion, browsing, preview, playback, streaming, conversion and sharing of every imaginable modern media format. It’s the focal point of a quarter trillion dollar media empire. In the process, the cognitive load of using iTunes has become considerable, not to mention the app’s performance, reliability and myriad other problems. Many users complain about it. Apple’s response has been to separate various functions into individual apps: Podcasts, iTunes U, Music, Videos, Trailers, iBooks, App Store, etc.


Developing and delivering map services as separate apps would prevent the immaturity of one or more components from bringing down the overall perception of the entire Maps platform. Can the Maps app be sliced into 8-10 separate apps: satellite, roads/traffic, mass transit, turn-by-turn direction, 3D/flyover, search, discovery, points of interest and so on? While this may make logical sense, not all users will be happy exchanging an integrated app where especially the novice user can find everything in one place for several single-purpose apps. It can get complicated. For example, millions of people commute daily to New York City from many smaller cities and at least four states, some driving through three states twice a day. Would they want to manage various aspects of that process in multiple apps?


Clearly, Apple has already started to think about and experiment with unorthodox displays of map data, as exemplified by its “Schematic Maps” patent application. So, for instance, instead of slicing Maps into separate apps horizontally, could it be another option to display metadata vertically as layers, like the tissue-paper overlays of yesteryear?


Conceptually, this can be an effective way to deal with complexity, data density and integration issues within one app. PlaceBase, one of the mapping companies Apple has acquired in the last couple of years, was known exactly for such layering of data through its PushPin API.

Apple could even parallelize and greatly accelerate its Maps development by starting a mini “Map Store” and actively enlisting third parties to develop layers on top of Apple’s “base-map”. Users could make nominally priced in-app purchases (think $0.99) to add custom layers to replace and/or augment Apple’s own layers. It would be very attractive for third parties, as their layers, floating on Apple default base-map, could quickly capture a massive user base in the millions (think getting 70% of $0.99 from 10-20 million users). Wouldn’t you pay $0.99 for a Google Search layer that pre-processes a local point of interest overlay?

Layered maps don’t, of course, come without issues. It would be sensible to make layers adjustably translucent so multiple layers can be co-visible and interact with each other, such as traffic and mass transit. However, too many layers could become hard to manage for novice users, simple show/hide checkboxes may not suffice. Memory management of layers in terms of pre-caching, loading and state-saving, as well as intra-layer version compatibility and licensing could be problematic. Apple would have to carefully select and test a rather limited number of vitally important layers to go on top of its base-map.

And yet a mini Map Store could help Apple catch up and pass Google Maps or other players in the field much faster than Apple alone could, as well as open up significant opportunities for Apple’s developer ecosystem.

Does Apple have to lose for Google to win?

Not if it doesn’t play by the same rules. After all, it’s Google’s game to lose. Tim Cook telling customers to use other companies’ mapping products must have taken some guts at Cupertino. It’s perhaps a conviction on his part (with his inside knowledge) that Apple can and over time will do better than the competing apps he so forthrightly listed. That’s the confident view Google would likely prefer to fly over.

31 thoughts on “Apple Maps: The Next Turn

  1. Normally, I don’t spend much time reading these kinds of articles, but you have done a good job explaining a very complicated issue on it’s various fronts. I like your ideas on what people really want maps to do, there are few I hadn’t thought of.

  2. As with all maps, out of date info is an issue that alienates the user. The augmented elements, eateries, hotels etc tend to fall by the wayside as they are often user generated. I use neither Apple nor Google Maps for finding a place for the night or somewhere to have a meal. Their unreliabilty proves their downfall for me.
    As an aside if I used Google maps for navigation I would never get far as it always directs me along a road which closed over seven years ago.

  3. my favorite travel map for major cities – streetwise. no battery, no mobile service – just your eyes and a working brain. cool article though!

  4. A Map Store with layers is an interesting concept. However, allowing others to plop pixels on top of their apps doesn’t seem to be in Apple’s DNA.

  5. Reblogged this on The New Technologist and commented:
    SInce I’ve been following and talking about the mapgate, I though that reblogging this article would be a great insight for those interested in the topic. This article is as complete as it can be and full of useful information if you want to understand the topic at hand.

  6. I think a map app store is an obvious idea that Apple should go after. There are so many apps in the App Store right now that are basically just a map view with a unique data source. What if people could just publish their map layer data as a “map app” in itself without having to go through the process of creating a whole redundant app around it? If they did this, you wouldn’t have to check multiple apps to see what’s around you because everyone would contribute their specialized data onto a single map.

    Apple would have an advantage here, because they have a talent for getting people to pay for digital content. They got people to pay for songs and other media with iTunes, they got people to pay for applications with the App Store, and magazines to a lesser extent with Newsstand. They could do the same for map data.

    Also, I disagree when you say that there aren’t a lot of mapping companies out there to acquire – there are a lot of interesting startups doing things with maps like MapBox and Urbanmapping that I think could probably benefit Apple a lot if they were acquired.

  7. Great article. I have no doubt Apple will fix the flyover image issues and location errors that are pegging iOS6 maps very soon. However, the biggest complaint I have heard from folks is that they miss street view on google maps. Do you think Apple can improve on flyover to make it as vivid and detailed as google’s street view?

    Also, why do you think Apple continues to have issues with products and services that are data and analytical related? If Apple can design the best phones, write the beat OS/application software, build a reliable/high performance mobile processors, and build the best hardware, why does it continue to have problems with data centric services and products (mobile me, iCloud – still has some issues, and now Maps)?

    • As I mention very briefly in the post, until recently Apple didn’t have to and hasn’t really hired a critical mass of large-scale data and infrastructure professionals. It may change.

    • Excellent 3rd party Street View apps exist in the App Store that work perfectly on iOS 6, as I have been screaming myself hoarse explaining to Apple Maps whiners. But no-one seems to care beyond aiming barbs at Apple which leads me to believe this appears to be yet another AntennaGate mob stitch-up.

      I was ecstatic at picking up this tip from a blog’s comments section, and have been using Street Viewer (free ad-supported version; ad-free version is 69p/99c) ever since, but am yet to record a single response either way from commenters who say (or allege) that they “absolutely require Street View for their daily whatever” and that the iOS upgrade has ruined that functionality for them. As there is no current method for rolling back the iOS upgrade, I would have thought this would have been good news for users in this predicament, but – silence, no response whatsoever, not a single come-back…

      Similarly, Apple’s eco-system allows the use of various dedicated data-centric Cloud syncing services like Box.Net, DropBox, Flickr and even competing offerings like Google Drive and SkyDrive, so it can be said that the so-called “walled garden” isn’t as closed as is portrayed in the tech world, providing the user with choice in those fields where Apple’s own bespoke offerings MAY not be to the liking of all.

      For the record, I have used MobileMe on my PC system (with Outlook), MacBook Pro and iOS devices (with Address Book, Calendar, Photos and Reminders) since 2008 and it has pretty much “just worked”, with ever increasing functionality and usefulness. It’s not perfect by any stretch of the imagination, but the iterative improvements have been clear to see and quite welcome.

      Just sayin’…

  8. Perhaps Apple is reinventing the Map Application to make it more versatile to allow integration with various other services that the endusers require. For example, in a Hospital where multiple resources and services are required in a dynamic fashion to support a specific patients needs, while reducing the bandwidth requirements to integrate with iPhone, iPad and iPad Touch.

  9. There are some other interesting possibilities… especially with 3D Flyover…

    I have been experimenting: AirPlaying Maps on my iPad 3 to my Mac and then capturing the iPad screen as i manipulate the maps with my fingers.

    Take the captured FlyOver into FCP X and coy can create a very good video with realistic [enough] images for games and special effects.

    For example, consider a low-level 3D FlyOver of Laguna Seca, Indianapolis Speedway or Daytona as a background for a car racing app.

    Flying down the streets of NYC, Chicago or Las Vegas seems eerily familiar — Like Luke Skywalker flying down the trench attacking the DeathStar

    • Now that’s what I’m talking about!

      Onward with the lateral thinking, dude.

      May the Force be with you…

  10. Apple relied on Akamai for distribution. Apple was using Azure and AWS for iCloud. Probably using MapReduce for Siri but unless Apple wants to datamine maps for user behavior, does it really need MapReduce let alone collect all that data.
    You would think companies like TomTom and Nokia would have their own MapReduce.

    Instead of more overlays, it would more intelligent to use Siri
    to determine that you are going to grandma’s house and provide estimate time and traffic automatically instead of putting it in the map. but that is bigger undertaking than siri simple knowing your nickname or announcing voice prompts which doesn’t need any AI.

  11. Kontra wrote, “We want to tap a restaurant on a map, get its ratings and book a reservation…geo-fencing to alert us automatically as the GPS tracker on our map gets near a commercial point of interest, show us a discount coupon…a virtual check-in on a map converted into real-life currency discount…”

    Yeah, in theory. But as you later say in discussing layers, all this threatens to become a useless cacophony. As Ping demonstrated, Apple is not yet very smart about knowing what you want to know about, and certainly not when. Not that I think others are, either. Maybe Netflix had the gold standard with its recommendations, and even those left a fair amount to user discretion/contemplation.

    I don’t think I’m too far out of the norm in wanting something to serve more like an example we had from yesterday: after being mostly off the grid a couple of weeks, we scanned thru the old papers and found a mention of a “new” (since April) omakase place in NYC from a trusted expert reviewer. We’ll decide in a couple of days when to put it into our November trip there.

    A $150/head “worth a trip” dinner is NOT the sort of thing that I ever imagine reserving for just because I’m in the neighborhood. On the other hand, knowing that a couple of 8pm seats happened to open up at an always-maxed out favorite within 5 miles of me: that’d be a feature worth having.

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