Opinion: Apple plots Maps counter-attack as the Android war intensifies

May 08, 2013 10:56 AM EDT

It's fair to say Maps got off to a difficult start, but Apple [AAPL] is prioritizing improvements, with the company and its data partners working to ensure it eventually becomes better than Google Maps -- why else will a future upgrade to the latter feature map tiles that seem so similar to those used by Apple?

[ABOVE: This parody seems fairly typical of the ridicule Apple experienced when it launched Maps. The disaster quickly became good marketing for Android, setting the scene for months of criticism for the iPhone maker.]

Getting better all the time?

Apple's focus on Maps improvements has been clear, starting with sackings at the top and a promise from company CEO, Tim Cook. More recently it is known the company has been recruiting staff worldwide to improve the accuracy of its mapping data, and this drive for improvement is also becoming visible elsewhere.

MapBox this week introduced a new map editor for the OpenStreetMap project. iD users can now easily contribute data to OpenStreetMaps from within the browser, which should hopefully improve data quality -- that's good news for Apple Maps, as the firm uses OpenStreetMaps as one of its data sources. (Google Maps also draws data from the service).

OpenStreetMap US Foundation Secretary, Alex Barth, told Techcrunch:

"Starting today 1 million community mappers gain access to this new editor. It radically flattens the learning curve for existing users and for the two thousand new ones OpenStreetMap adds every day. Investing in core infrastructure like this is a game changer for OpenStreetMap and legacy proprietary data companies won’t be able to keep up with the combination of top notch editing experience and openly licensed database. In short, we will get more people adding more data, faster."

Apple also uses data provided by TomTom. That company has also quietly been improving its offering, including the recent provision of new navigation engine, NavKit, which can be ported to any operating system and also provides 3D maps. The company also updated its iOS mapping app last month, which now offers advanced route planning tools.

Apple is working on other improvements, too.

For example a recently published patent application describes the addition of a printing function within the app, which would theoretically enable users to print directions to where they are going. A second patent suggests plans to provide Street View-style 3D position tracking for panoramic imagery navigation within Maps.

Given that Apple's mapping teams are working to improve Maps, it's extremely likely they are asking -- or even helping -- data providers to improve their own information.

Vehicle integration -- drawing the lines

There's another reason: iOS 7 and future in-car integration.

Apple is expected to introduce a new version of Siri at WWDC next month, which in conjunction with Maps will be "tightly integrated" with cars.

There's some speculation that iOS 7 and the iPhone 5S will offer a voice-activated navigation system in addition to its current ability to send texts, choose music and access calendar functions using vocal commands.

Numerous automobile manufacturers have integrated or are promising to integrate support for Siri in their cars. These include GM, Toyota, Honda, Audi, Mercedes, BMW, Land Rover, Jaguar and Ferrari. (Apple's iTunes chief, Eddy Cue, sits on Ferrari's board).

In conjunction with improved services from data providers and strong relationships with car makers, Apple is investing in its mapping teams.

The company's recruitment page generates 105 jobs using the word "Maps." Positions include those for quality assurance engineers, bug specialists, iOS and Web application engineers, ground truth managers, and positions straddling iTunes, Maps and iCloud.

Cartographic count down

One of the ads reveals:

"The iPhone, iPad and iPod touch have revolutionised the mobile industry and have changed people's lives. We want to continue to do so. We want to take Maps, MapKit, Compass and our other location technologies to the next level and rethink how people use maps, location and geo information. We want to do this in a seamless, highly interactive and enjoyable way. We've only just started!"

Another position, this time for Maps Navigation, seeks, "a proactive and motivated software engineer to focus on Apple's turn-by-turn navigation experience." The position specifies someone familiar with map data formats from "TomTom or other leading map providers."

While he wasn't specific, a recent interview with TomTom head of user experience, Cees van Dok, observes what Google Maps lacks that TomTom -- and by inference, Apple -- may do better.

"I don't think these guys are really focused on the driving," he told TechRadar. "I think they're much more into 'How can I make a mapping app exploitable? How does it help my search experience, my advertisement model?' I think that's much more on the minds of smartphone mapmakers than it is about getting you in a car from A to B.

"Our approach has to been integrate map browsing and navigation into a unified experience... in Google you're thrown into a completely different experience."

The TomTom exec also suggested part of the problem with Apple Maps initially was the complexity of pulling in data from so many data sources. Apple's recruitment pages demonstrate several ways in which the company is attempting to improve this integration.

Apple's reputation drive

What's clear from all this is that while Google appears to be the market leader for mapping services with Google Maps, incumbents in the space ("the enemy of my enemy") appear open to working with Apple to provide resistance to the hegemony.

With WWDC looming, it seems likely we'll see the battle lines drawn, with those opposing Google choosing to fight this war within car integration, which the TomTom executive clearly sees as a weak point in Google's current service.

This isn't just about Maps, of course. Apple knows the disastrous launch tarnished the reputation of its iPhone. This has impacted sales to the benefit of the company's competitors. It knows it must show significant improvements in the service as soon as possible, and WWDC seems a good location to do so.

Why?

Because it needs to regain public imagination, itself battered by months of negative publicity, as it prepares to introduce its new range of iPhones later this summer.

Do you really think Apple has been quiet for all these months because it has run out of ideas? That's hardly likely. Instead it has spent the time removing disloyal competitors from its supply chain, and studying the Android ecosystem for what weaknesses it could exploit.

Steve Jobs did promise to go "thermonuclear," after all. I suspect Apple is now about to raise its game.

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