Apple and Mapping?
I have been quite amused by all of the hoopla concerning Apple’s entry into the world of mapping and navigation. As I read the accolades pouring in as a result of the announcement, I could not help but wonder, “Do any of these people know anything about mapping?” Hmmm.
I watched a video of the “map” presentation at Apple’s WWDC and was struck by the fact that the presenter used the term “beautiful” to describe the map display on at least five separate occasions. Since my roots are in cartography, I appreciate a well-designed display, but only when the data represented on the display are a fair representation of the real-world. In other words, the most significant problem in creating a navigation/mapping application is data quality.
Yesterday, I read an article on CNN titled Apple’s Secret Weapon”, by John Brownlee. I thought it was an interesting an insightful view of what makes Apple great. Brownlee reasoned that it almost seems as if Steve Jobs and Apple created a time machine that allowed them to create products that are years ahead of their competitors. Brownlee hits the nail on the head when he indicates there is no “flux capacitor” at Apple, only the ability to actualize the, “…revolutionary, magical machines it dreams up.” Yes, iPod, iPhone, iPad, retina displays, etc. do show the ability of Apple to actualize dreams and make them realities that appeal to millions of potential purchasers.
Well, I guess this is true, if one is willing to make an exception for the mapping app that Apple intends to launch as a feature of IOS 6. Apple’s demonstration of the application at the WWDC showed little innovation and a lot of copying. However, since this is a software service, rather than a physical product, maybe Apple’s vaunted reputation for product development does not apply. After all, this is the company the brought you “Mobile Me”, a product that the even the late Steve Jobs described as, “Not our finest moment.”
It is my opinion that Apple decided to produce a mapping/routing/local search service on the basis of branding, not on the basis of this being an area in which the company possesses, or could ever hope to wield, a significant competitive advantage. Apple realized that it was losing brand recognition and revenue by using Google for its mapping needs and decided to bring in some “caulk” to stop the leak. The weakness with this approach is that Apple likely has little insight on what makes a great mapping application, or an appreciation that the development of a mapping application will be unlike anything else it has ever attempted. While its legions of designers and artists may be able to make the app beautiful, it is data quality and not image quality that is the major differentiator in the mapping arms race that they have entered.
Unfortunately, Apple has limited expertise in mapping, and may not understand the problems it faces. Further, it is unlikely to be able to “actualize” a new standard for navigation or local search that will reshape the industry in a manner that reflects Apple’s leading edge capabilities in function and design of products intended for the consumer electronics space. For those of you who are doubters, did you see anything in the WWDC demo of their mapping application that you have not seen before or of which you were completely unaware?
It is important to remember that what we saw at the WDDC was an early stage development representing San Francisco as a base. I wonder how many people were asked to QC that the map space before the demo? If I had a dollar for every time San Francisco was used for a map demo that I have personally witnessed, I would be a very rich man today. However, it is not San Francisco that will give Apple heartburn. Providing quality map coverage over the rest of the world is another matter completely.
Over the past three years, Apple has acquired several small companies that were focused on parts of the mapping equation (Placebase – GIS and database driven mapping, C3 – 3D imagery and mapping, Poly 9 – projection, web mapping). Note that these companies are not data companies. Currently Apple lacks the resources to provide the majority of geospatial and POI data required for its application. Traffic, however, will be based on the GPS paths recorded from iPhone users to build both historical and real-time models of traffic flows.
In order to develop its mapping application, Apple has scoured the world for content that would allow it to develop a comprehensive, up-to-date, map database with the coverage required to provide services to its worldwide markets. My overall view of the companies that it has assembled to create its application is that they are, rated as a whole, ”C-grade” suppliers. I have focused my comments on the two categories of suppliers described below, but note that their imagery and parcel data suppliers are of “A” quality.
Navigable Map Database Suppliers.
The data supplier of most importance to Apple is TomTom, a company providing the navigation database provided by Tele Atlas, which TomTom acquired in 2008. It is my sense that Tele Atlas has not prospered under TomTom ownership. TomTom’s fortunes declined as the market for PNDs unexpectedly, at least to TomTom, dropped shortly after the acquisition. Besides limiting the company’s expenditures on improving the quality and coverage of TomTom’s date, the drop in the amount of PND’s sold decreased the update data available to Tele Atlas for map compilation purposes from TomTom’s excellent Map Share product. Put another way, this is the company Google dumped because it was unhappy with the quality of the data delivered.
While TomTom through Map Share had the promise of revolutionizing the navigation map industry, the progress has not met the promise. Tele Atlas has lost many of its key employees and it is my impression that its data quality has declined since 2008. I question the use of Tele Atlas data as the backbone for the Apple mapping service. It may be that Apple felt that TomTom was the only viable alternative, since they had already ruled out the use of Google and Navteq is tied up with Nokia, although I suspect that association may soon change. Apple may learn the hard way that choosing data suppliers based on brand strategy and not data quality does not result in the best possible solution.
In coverage areas where TomTom does not have the appropriate data, it appears that Apple will turn to other suppliers such as DMTI, a company that does provide relatively high-quality data for Canada, or Map Data Sciences, a company providing quality data for Australia and New Zealand. Unfortunately other map data suppliers involved, in my opinion, do not meet these same standards and I would expect Apple’s map data for much of the rest of the world to be lacking in detail, coverage and currentness.
I understand that Apple is planning to use Waze and perhaps OSM where appropriate (appropriate in this case likely means where TomTom does not have data). Those of you who have read other items in this blog know that I am a proponent of hybrid-crowdsourcing that blends traditional compilation techniques with both active and passive crowdsourcing. However, Apple does not have the assets to advantage themselves in this area and must rely instead on importing crowdsourced data that may not meet their standards. Time will tell, but a major issue that Apple must address is related to how the company works with its suppliers to update areas where users have noted errors.
I suspect TomTom will be responsive to making changes, as it needs the business. As most of you know, there is no organization behind crowd-sourced systems that can guarantee that a map error will be researched, recompiled and pushed to live in a specific amount of time. Of course, one of the things Apple has not revealed is how its database correction procedures will be implemented. Passing vectors to be rendered on the user device may portend a “live” mapping database behind the scenes at Apple Central, but as of now, this is conjecture on my part.
Business Listing Suppliers
Apple seems to plan on using business listing data from Acxiom and Localeze (a division of Neustar), supplemented by reviews from Yelp. I suspect that Apple does not yet understand what a headache it will be to integrate the information from these three disparate sources. Hopefully they will need to employ the readers of this blog to solve this problem, because it is one that can destroy the efficacy of their business strategy for mapping.
While Apple is not generating any new problems by trying to fuse business listings data, they have stumbled into a problem that suffers from different approaches to localization, lack of postal address standards, lack of location address standards and general incompetence in rationalizing data sources. But, hey, this is one area where having billions in the bank might help, at least it might help if you had some idea of what you were doing. As you may have gleaned from the tone of this blog I am not sure Apple understands the mess it is creating, at least at this stage of the development.
Mike Blumenthal, author of a popular blog on Google Places & Local Search, http://blumenthals.com/blog/ recently asked me if I thought that Apple was in the same place as Google in 2007 when it was using Tele Atlas data. Mike’s interest was in pondering whether Apple, like Google, might be on the road to developing a navigable map database.
This is an interesting question. I think Apple has more problems to solve and a lack of ability to solve them relative to Google in respect to creating a navigable map database. Among my concerns are these:
1) Apple lacks the ability to mine vast amounts of local search data, as Google was able to do when it started its mapping project.
2) Apple does not have Sebastian Thrun working for them, a world famous robotics brain (and professor at Stanford), who developed Street View and Google’s fleet of autonomous vehicles that now gather map data.
3) Apple does not currently have a program like Google Map Maker that has been a valuable source of local data for Google. Using OSM as a substitute may cause Apple major headaches. (Speaking of headaches, I get one every time I try to read the interchanges in the Legal-talk Digest that discusses OSM licensing issues.)
4) Google developed mapping as another way to forward integrate into advertising. Google is in the mapping business only because it advantages their advertising business. I do not see the correlate at Apple, since their ability to penetrate the mobile advertising market appears limited, at least at present.
Apple has a long road ahead of it in the company’s attempt to create a competitive navigation system aimed at mobile devices. However, one measure of the greatness of companies is how well they respond to significant challenges. Perhaps Apple will hurdle the bar in front of it and set a new standard for maps and navigation. After all, someone should.
Posted in Apple, Authority and mapping, Google, Google Map Maker, Google maps, Local Search, Mapping, Microsoft, Mike Dobson, Navteq, Nokia, OSM, Tele Atlas, TomTom, Volunteered Geographic Information, crowdsourced map data