The evidence for an iOS Maps overhaul

We’ve been through the song and dance plenty of times by now. In a little under a month, Apple executives will take to the stage in San Francisco, and likely announce the newest update to the company’s mobile operating system, iOS.

What exactly that update might entail is kept tightly under wraps, but at the intersection of rampant Internet discussion and reasonable expectations, you’ll find one key feature: mapping.

In retrospect, it seems obvious that mobile access to mapping would be one of the great revolutions of the smartphone age. Single-function GPS units had their heyday in a world where the only alternatives were the maps in your glove compartment or printed-out directions from the Internet.

Still, while Apple has made modest improvements to its Maps application in recent years—location finding, traffic, multiple routes—it’s found itself slipping behind offerings from its major competitors, especially Android. Google rolled turn-by-turn directions into its navigation app back in Android 2.0—that was 2009.

Three years later, it’s an area where even most iPhone users will admit that Android comes out ahead. Sure, there are a glut of GPS apps for iOS, some of them quite good, but many of them are expensive. And, more importantly, as hard as they try, none of them quite manage to do it with Apple’s traditional élan. That leaves mapping as an area ripe for Apple’s time and attention.

As Apple Kremlinologists, we spend a lot of time sifting through the silt and the mud to uncover the occasional shiny rocks. They’re small things; calling them “nuggets” would be generous. But they start to pile up after a while, enough so that you can safely conclude that there is, in fact, gold in them there hills.

Apple vs. Google: Like Charles Xavier and Erik Lensherr, Apple and Google were once the best of friends. But though they strove for the same goal—adoption of smartphones by the masses—their philosophies and motives were often incompatible. The relationship has been showing signs of strain for years, but Google still has its fingers hooked into a couple of crucial parts of iOS. Most importantly, Google Maps’s engine is still at the heart of Apple’s Maps app after all these years, and there can be little doubt that for Apple having such an important feature controlled by a such a major rival is… sub-optimal, to say the least.

Acquisitions: So what’s a tech company to do? Mapping is hardly within Apple’s technical expertise. It works for Google, because Google is interested in data of all sorts, while Apple focuses its attention on building products. But if you can’t beat ‘em, buy someone who can. Apple is strategic about its acquisitions, so while buying one mapping company might be regarded as a fluke, and two a coincidence, three is clearly a trend. Regardless of whether Apple wants those companies’ personnel or their technologies, those purchases are definitely about mapping.

iPhoto maps: iPhoto for iOS, which debuted in March, doesn’t use Google Maps for its photo-geolocation abilities. Rather, it uses data from the open-source OpenStreetMap service. Of course, different internal teams at Apple use different tools for their jobs, but they also don’t operate in a complete vacuum. Given that Google Maps is used for pretty much all of Apple’s other mapping features, including iPhoto on the Mac, there has to be a pretty good reason for the switch here.

Power map: iPhoto for iOS now relies on OpenStreetMap instead of Google Maps.

Siri: Voice prompts are a key part of the true turn-by-turn experience. With the introduction of Siri last fall, Apple’s gently backed into this feature. Siri can already respond to queries about directions, though it can’t yet walk you through them. Still, given Siri’s focus on natural language interaction, it hardly seems a stretch that the virtual assistant could be adapted to provide directions on a turn-by-turn basis.

Traffic: The keystone of this whole theory comes straight from the horse’s mouth. During last year’s location kerfuffle, the company published a Q&A about the data it collects. Included in that was a rare mention of a future product: “Apple is now collecting anonymous traffic data to build a crowd-sourced traffic database with the goal of providing iPhone users an improved traffic service in the next couple of years.” It makes little sense for Apple to replace Google’s traffic service without replacing the entirety of Maps, or to provide a separate app for traffic—were Occam an Apple enthusiast, I’m sure he’d be happy to put this in the “for” column.

Tally up all that evidence and it’s not hard to draw a straight line from where we are to where we’re going. Every Apple release has its own “tentpole” features, and Maps has lagged behind for long enough. Come June, expect to see Apple taking a serious shot at clearing and raising the bar where mapping is concerned.

For comprehensive coverage of the Android ecosystem, visit Greenbot.com.

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