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Tuesday, December 5, 2023

The Biggest Apple Maps Change Is One You Can't See

Apple yesterday touted a “new” version of Apple Maps, one that includes faster navigation, more detailed roads, real-time transit updates, lists of favorite places, and access to Look Around, street-level 3-D imagery that’s similar to Google’s Street View. Despite the fanfare, the Maps app won't look dramatically different; most of these new features were available previously, and the update means they’re coming to more regions in the US. The more interesting aspect of the Apple Maps overhaul is what happened under the hood.

Since its Maps app launched in 2012, Apple has relied on licensed data from navigation technology companies, including TomTom, to fill in the gaps where it hadn't yet captured its own data. With this latest update, Apple is no longer licensing TomTom data for the US, the company confirmed. Apple Maps now relies on the company's own underlying framework for domestic navigation.

In a prepared statement Apple senior vice president Eddy Cue said that the completion of the US map and delivery of the new features are “important steps” in creating what he referred to as the best and most private maps in the world. He added that Apple will “bring this new map to the rest of the world starting with Europe” sometime in 2020. Apple Maps is used by “hundreds of millions” of people in around 200 countries, the company says.

It’s not totally accurate to say that Apple’s digital maps are completed in the US, since physical locations are constantly changing, and mapping software has to evolve to reflect that. And Apple relies on third-party maps data for regions outside of the US, as well as sources like Yelp and OpenTable for other Maps functions in the US. But Apple’s announcement that all users in the US are getting access to Apple’s homegrown maps is a notable milestone in a multiyear attempt to catch up to Google in mapping the globe—an effort Apple is spending billions of dollars on.

What’s New Is New Again

Apple’s latest publicity push around Maps isn’t tied to any specific software update, either to iOS 13 or MacOS Catalina. And you might not notice any new features if you live in one of the US cities that already had access to some of the new features.

As of Thursday afternoon, a map of downtown San Francisco pulled up in Apple Maps app on an iPhone running iOS 13.3.1 looked pretty much the same as before. Tapping on the “info” icon on the page led to a Maps Settings menu that still showed TomTom, OpenStreetMap, and the Weather Channel as data sources, because those services still provide data in certain markets. The Collections feature, which lets users create Foursquare-like lists (Google does this too), launched with iOS 13 last year. So did indoor mapping, which will provide info like the location of restrooms inside of malls and airports and advanced real-time transit information for US metro areas.

However, since Apple's US base map is now complete, at least one new feature that the company started rolling out in a limited number of locations last year will soon become available to more people in the US. This is Look Around, a street-level vantage point that takes direct aim at Google Street View.

Look Around shows up as a binoculars icon within Maps, offering a 360-degree panorama view of a location. It does this by marrying the visual image data captured by street cars with accurate positioning data. It was announced at Apple’s annual software developer conference last June and was available in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Hawaii last year. More recently, it started rolling out in New York City, Houston, and Clark County, Nevada. Now Apple says it should start popping up in more locations.

Look Around is a good example of how owning all of the base map data, while a costly proposition, is critical for any company looking to build out better technology within maps. And since Apple makes its mapping tech available to outside developers through tools like MapKit, it means more apps will rely on Apple’s own maps database for the US. It has more iterative benefits as well.

“With its own base map, Apple automatically has more control over map updates, instead of being reliant on a third party,” says Annette Zimmerman, a vice president at Gartner Research. “That helps with faster updates and fresher maps.”

What Did the Big Tomato Say

Despite Apple’s efforts, it’s still playing catch-up to Google Maps in many regions around the globe. (The notable exception is China, where Google Maps is unavailable and Apple Maps relies on data from Chinese provider AutoNavi.) Google has had a massive head start, launching its Maps product in 2005 and starting its Street View data-collection efforts a couple of years after that. Apple, in comparison, launched its maps app in 2012 and started deploying Street View–like cars to gather imagery around the US and Europe in 2015.

Google, like Apple, uses a combo of licensed data, user-contributed data, and its own collected data to build out its maps. But Google’s years-long lead has paved the way for it to apply its impressive machine learning technology to Google Maps, to the point where algorithms now automatically create new addresses in the app. Google also offers a relatively new augmented-reality feature in Maps; Apple Maps doesn’t have a comparable feature.

But Google also serves up ads—which it calls “promoted pins”—in its Maps app. Apple does not. Another big differentiator for Apple Maps is privacy, although that’s not necessarily new. Apple says Maps does not link to a specific user ID, that a user’s location is obscured when searching within Maps, and that the company doesn’t retain a history of user locations. Google, in the past, has been called out for collecting and storing fairly granular location data without making it obvious to users that it’s happening—and even if they had paused location sharing. “What Apple is trying to offer here is privacy of users’ location data,” Zimmerman says.

Last year, Google rolled out an Incognito mode in Maps and introduced a tool to let people delete their saved location data every three or 18 months. But Google’s approach to data collection underscores that the overwhelming bulk of its business comes from advertising. Apple, meanwhile, continues to emphasize that its apps are more private, hoping that will convince consumers to use its apps instead—even when their feature set remains years behind.

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