Apple’s New Maps App: Why It Arrived So Late and Faces …

Apple unveils its new Maps app at the WWDC 2012 keynote. Photo: Jon Phillips/Wired

Apple’s iOS Maps app is woefully behind the times.

In fact, plenty of third-party iOS apps offer features you won’t find in the Maps app built into iPhones and iPads. Even more damaging for Apple: The Maps app built into Android has offered turn-by-turn navigation for quite some time, but Apple never implemented the feature — despite the fact that it’s always used Google Maps for its back-end.

So when Apple announced Monday that iOS 6 would include a new Maps app built from the ground up by Cupertino’s finest, the Apple faithful applauded. In short: Google’s out, and Apple’s going to directly control its own mapping future.

It all sounds great on paper, and it’s high time that Apple modernized its Maps offering. But the company is still a late entrant to a mapping space that’s rich with established players. Apple has a lot of catching up to do, and there are going to be growing pains.

“Mapping is not easy,” Gartner analyst Brian Blau told Wired. “Mapping technology is inherently difficult to do. The data sets are very large, and building in directions accurately is difficult, as are things like implementing traffic, and points of interest — especially with GPS not being especially accurate.”

Monday’s iOS 6 announcement included a demo of turn-by-turn navigation. It was an impressive spectacle, but it also provoked a question: Why didn’t Apple integrate turn-by-turn much, much sooner? A look back in history provides answers.

When iOS first launched in the iPhone in 2007, Apple embraced Google Maps as its mapping back-end. But over the years, rivalry between the tech giants increased to a fever pitch. So it’s likely that Apple decided some years ago to eventually abandon Google Maps, and create its own platform. And because Apple knew it was eventually going to drop Google as its back-end, there was no point in pushing further innovation or integration with the system doomed to a limited lifespan.

As a result, turn-by-turn was never introduced in iOS, though users could tap into expensive third-party apps for the same support.

It’s now quite obvious that Apple’s been building its own mapping platform for quite some time. Over the past three years, the company has acquired several different mapping-related startups like Placebase, Poly9, and C3 Technologies. The latter likely provides the brains behind Maps’ new 3D Flyover feature.

But having a team doesn’t matter if you don’t have a robust data set of maps to work with. “If you don’t own a map, you have to go out and license one. That’s a difficult process,” Waze CEO Noam Bardin told Wired. Google decided eight years ago to invest millions upon millions in its mission to map and photograph the roadways of the world. But Apple hasn’t invested in mapping for anywhere near eight years, and its acquisition and partnership options have been limited.

Apple couldn’t tap Google for help, because Google owns Android. Navteq would have made a good partner, but it’s owned by Nokia, so Microsoft gets to take advantage of all those maps for Windows Phone. This left TomTom as the primary source for Apple’s bespoke mapping platform.

“Apple has a big hurdle to jump over here. Mapping products from other companies are fairly advanced and have been around for a long time,” Gartner analyst Brian Blau told Wired. Indeed, Apple’s competitors have years of experience building maps not only for the browser and desktop, but mobile as well. Google, for example, now covers 26 million miles of road globally in 187 countries.

Contrast this with TomTom, which has been around since 1991, and covers less territory: approximately 22.4 million navigable miles in 109 countries.

Google Earth is set for an update that will add advanced 3-D models to cities such as San Francisco. Image: Google

“TomTom has the lowest-quality maps in the US,” Bardin said. And Blau agreed: “I’ve tried out all the mapping products over the past couple of years, and I would tend to agree that [TomTom]‘s products aren’t top of class.”

According to legal notices in the iOS 6 beta, Waze is providing crowd-sourced traffic and mapping data to Apple for its new Maps app, along with a handful of other smaller providers. These small partnerships are helpful, but Apple is anticipating problems with Maps, and has accounted for it: “If you look at the iOS 6 [beta] map, it has a button to inform them about a map problem,” Bardin said.

Some of these problems might include missing references to new roads, misnamed roads, and routing changes that were never updated — basically, all the things we saw in the early days of Google Maps and in-car GPS units.

Apple’s new Maps will also lack Google’s Street View feature, something many users will undoubtedly miss. It also won’t include built-in transit directions. It will, however, in its initial version direct you to third-party apps that do provide public transit information. Andy Baio posits that including accurate, up-to-date transit directions “was presumably too difficult to attempt for this first release.”

So, with all these downsides, why would Apple take the chance to develop its own mapping solution? Is Google really such a threatening competitor that the two companies can’t find common ground in mapping?

The answer is simple: Apple needs superior, systemwide mapping integration across its entire OS.

“Maps are an integral piece of functionality for a mobile device,” Blau said. “Google’s just not going to be able to provide that for Apple given the level of competition between them.” Thus, Maps in iOS 6 won’t just replace Google Maps — it will appear throughout the operating system in new, novel ways.

Forrester analyst Thomas Husson echoed the importance of, and trend toward, stronger maps integration in mobile devices. “Location-based services go way beyond just maps and turn-by-turn navigation,” Husson told Wired via email. “Location is no longer a service per se, like maps or navigation, but is increasingly an enabler of new product experiences.”

Maps integration with Siri is one example of this, as is iOS 6′s more robust local search feature, which allows you to get information on more than 100 million business listings. Google only has 80 million listings. Apple can also finally include features like turn-by-turn navigation and 360 views of metropolitan areas with Flyover.

“Apple wants to guarantee a good experience for its users by having a good product,” Blau said. “They may have to rely on partners like Yelp and TomTom, but it’s only to the point where they get to control the experience.”

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