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Apple maps: Where is Apple going?

Rob Palfreyman, CEO, of indoor location company sensewhere

In early June Apple announced that it was dropping Google as the default provider of mapping services in iOS.

As is so often the case, Apple’s announcement immediately whipped large swathes of the technology community into a lather of excitement. What did the new system do? Is it better than Google Maps? Would it demonstrate the famous Apple ‘cool’ factor? When can we get it?

Perhaps, however, the questions we should really be asking are; why did Apple make this move in the first place, and what do the new features suggest about where Apple thinks the future of location lies?

Preparing for the inevitable future of seamless, universal positioning
I suspect that Apple’s desire to control its own maps is, at least in part, an extension of its central philosophy; that in order to provide a great user experience you need to control as many levels of the phone ecosphere as possible, from the hardware to the software and internet services.

We’re already seeing tighter integration with the OS, twitter, imaging, Siri, the provision of local information through Yelp, etc. And Google is playing much the same game, to a different degree, with Places, Local, etc.

Ultimately, Apple’s interest in mapping, and desire to disengage from Google, reveals something deep-seated about the future of location; that the significance of accurate positioning on phones is extending far beyond the ‘traditional’ uses; maps, navigation and ‘where am I now’: Instead, location information is becoming tied into and used by systems and apps at a much more fundamental level.

In terms of positioning techniques, hardware and location databases, the general trend in phones has been towards a more ‘holistic’ approach using an increasingly wide variety of sensor-information and databases. These range from from GPS to MEMs, magnetometers and, in our case, dynamic, crowdsourced databases of RF beacons using the phone’s standard radio technology.

As companies such as Apple make increasing use of these varied positioning techniques, and place more emphasis on the provision of location information both indoors and out, the whole location experience will become more seamless. When this happens, consumers are likely to see location as an ‘everywhere, all of the time’ service that they simple expect to work all of the time. Apps will take advantage of this new information to integrate location functionality in ways we are unlikely to have fully anticipated yet. Use of positioning information will simultaneously become more prevalent and less obvious.

It seems entirely likely that Apple is preparing itself for exactly this; a future where location is universal and somewhat commodotised. And anticipating this, why would Apple have continued to share its valuable location information with Google? Not only would increasingly deep integration of location in phones have made Apple severely vulnerable to a late-stage separation from Google’s service, but they would potentially be handing more and more valuable location data to a direct competitor in the handset business.

A closer look at some of the new features
Apple’s choice to use vector maps in its new product is really interesting. This may well lead to faster loading times, better scalability, and less reliance on data connectivity. Many of the major phone manufacturers and mapping app providers seem to be on a road to providing offline maps, and vector mapping, with its lower storage requirements, should fit in well with that roadmap. Such stored, offline vector maps could be particularly useful in areas where data signals drop out, such as the ‘urban canyon’, or, in particular, inside the walls or metal-doped glass of buildings.

Another much-touted feature; Apple’s move towards turn-by turn navigation, could, of course, be anticipated a long way off. Android and Windows phone have had this feature for a long time. But while smartphones are making a small yet significant dent into the market share of in-car satnavs, it seems likely that this technology will also be highly applicable to the world of pedestrian navigation.

The absence of a ‘Streetview-like’ function in Apple’s new system has also been widely commented on. Instead we have Apple’s 3D mapping feature, for which Apple as leveraged their purchase of C3 technologies, which uses processes overlapping fly-by images taken at different angles to render buildings and landscapes in 3D. It’s also particularly interesting to note that Apple has also absorbed Poly9’s real-time altitude information and metropolitan maps. You could speculate that these would be useful technologies to absorb if, for example, you wanted to be able to place people on the correct floor of a building, as visualized from the outside.

The future is indoors
This neatly leads us on to what I theorise may be the next big differentiator to emerge in the Apple Maps experience; indoor location: Both Apple and Google are making effort to add extra useful information such as transit systems and detailed traffic information to its outdoor maps, as well as some visual ‘cool’ factor. However, in terms of what people actually want from positioning, I strongly believe indoor location is the next untapped frontier.

The opportunities to monetize indoor location, in advertising, coupons, app functionality, etc., are vast: Device manufacturers want to produce the best and most capable device, Google wants to know more about its customers to improve search, and app developers want the best functionality in order to sell the most apps.

However, indoor location is not easy. It’s simple to see how Apple could obtain decent indoor maps, (through conventional crowdsourcing or the purchase of third-party maps, perhaps somehow also working-in its C3 3D technology to inform the shape of the boundaries of buildings). However, what really counts is how phones actually locate themselves in space in the absence of GPS satellites, and how accurately this is achieved.

Fundamentally there is only one economical approach to maintaining consistently accurate, self-correcting indoor positioning; and this is the automatic crowdsourcing and cross-referencing of RF beacons that we employ. By using its users’ devices to automatically fingerprint and position individual RF beacons as they pass through them, Apple could build up a dynamic location database that would be self-correcting should the RF reference points be moved around. Apple could foster a system that essentially builds and maintains itself.

Whether Apple buys its indoor maps, or has people manually submit them remains an interesting question, but I have no doubt that automatic crowdsourcing is the way to go in terms of providing the reference database by which individuals are positioned on these maps.

Does Apple really want it?
It’s easy to wonder whether Apple has enough of an incentive to produce blisteringly good mapping software. After all, now that it has ‘ousted’ Google maps, any deficiency in mapping detail can probably be countermanded through seamless OS integration and the overall product experience of using the phone. That said, there’s considerable money to be made directly through location services and apps taking advantage of best-in-class indoor location functionality.

Apple also shouldn’t forget that Google Maps will eventually return in app form, providing ample competition to Apple’s attempt to guard the gates to location data. It will be interesting to see whether people fall back on what will, initially, be a product with a considerable head start in terms of its gathering of fine-grained mapping detail.

I firmly believe the competition between Apple and Google is a good thing, and will only result in better features for the consumer. And while Google may have a head start, Apple has a habit of surprising people by overtaking incumbent market leaders.

Some people have pointed towards an ‘explosion’ of location-related activity in the last few weeks. Truth be told, I think the major players are just getting started.

This article originally appeared in Mobile Europe

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