The road ahead: 3 ways Apple could push Maps forward with iOS 9 in 2015

Posted:
in iPhone edited February 2015
Just under three years after Apple evicted Google Maps from iOS, Cupertino's own mapping and navigation offering still has some critical weaknesses. AppleInsider looks ahead at what the next 12 months could have in store for Apple Maps.


2014: The Year of Nothing Much

User-facing changes to Apple Maps were few and far between in 2014. A revamped Maps app was expected to be one of iOS 8's tentpole features -- boasting a wealth of new data and the long-awaited addition of public transit directions -- but the most interesting modification of the year ended up being the introduction of nine new cities for the three-dimensional Flyover feature.

Apple did eventually tap 10 new sources for business listings. The additions of DAC Group, Location3 Media, Marquette Group, Placeable, PositionTech, SIM Partners, SinglePlatform, UBL, Yext, and Yodle to the initial trio of Yelp, Factual, and Neustar/Localeze boosted the number of firms providing point-of-interest data to a baker's dozen.
The most notable Apple Maps update of 2014 was adding the Grand Canyon to Flyover.
In another data-related move, the company began a seemingly comprehensive data scrubbing program that included the launch of a self-serve Maps Connect portal allowing local businesses to directly add or modify listings and personal calls to business owners from Maps team members to reconcile conflicting data. Changes are now rolled out every day, rather than once a week.

Apple Maps also made its web debut last year, powering the iCloud version of Find my iPhone. It hasn't yet propagated to all of Apple's web properties, however --?the company's retail store driving directions are still powered by Google.

Overall, 2014 seems to have been to the Maps team what Snow Leopard was to the OS X group: an opportunity to focus on behind-the-scenes tuneups that will underpin larger initiatives down the road. Though there is some debate as whether that was planned, Apple is known to be in the midst of "overhauling things front-to-back."

2015: We're gonna miss the train!

So what does that mean for 2015 and iOS 9? If iOS 8 was Maps's Snow Leopard, iOS 9 could well be its Lion: the release that marks the beginning of a new age.

Public transit: The most glaring omission in Apple Maps has always been and continues to be the lack of support for navigation routing that includes public transportation. With that functionality nowhere to be seen in iOS 8, it easily tops the list of "things Craig Federighi is most likely to announce at WWDC."

Apple will almost certainly integrate the basic door-to-door pathfinding technology that it acquired by purchasing transit companies HopStop and Embark. Also likely to come along is HopStop's future trip planning, which would let users pre-plan journeys --?for instance, they could compare cross-town rush hour routes at lunchtime --?and Embark's heads-up notifications, which proactively ping users with route advisories and closures.

Apple provided a glimpse into its plans with a pair of patent applications that came to light last month. Those documents detail a dynamic routing system that functions as a sort of personal commuting assistant, gathering routing data, timetables, and information on amenities such as Wi-Fi availability in a single place.

Apple's transit patents, left, and Waze-like traffic reporting, right.
Apple's transit patents, left, and Waze-like traffic reporting, right.


Crowdsourced traffic information: Apple is rumored to have offered around $500 million to acquire traffic app Waze in early 2013; Waze is believed to have wanted more, and Google eventually snapped up the Israeli company for nearly $1 billion. Apple still leverages Waze as one of multiple sources for realtime traffic data, but Cupertino appears focused on an in-house crowdsourcing push.

One iOS developer who works primarily on mapping applications told AppleInsider that crowdsourced traffic data is seen as a "serious target" for Apple's Maps team. As Waze's success proved, active user reporting of traffic conditions has significant benefits over traditional passive device location monitoring, which is currently the primary method by which companies compile traffic data.

That position is borne out by Apple patent applications that detail a system strikingly similar to Waze. Apple's approach would allow users to report accidents or other blockages and slowdowns, which would then be pushed to other drivers approaching the same area.

Indoor location: Accurately identifying a user's location is becoming increasingly important as software and services attempt to provide more useful contextual information. This is a relatively easy task when the user is outdoors, or otherwise in range of a signal from GPS or GLONASS satellites; it's an entirely different matter when walls and a ceiling are in the way.




Apple has taken two different but complimentary approaches to this problem. The first is the iBeacon system, which depends on small palm-sized Bluetooth transmitters placed around a particular space.

When an iOS device sees an iBeacon, it can analyze the signal to determine approximately how far away from that beacon it is. Using multiple iBeacons with known locations, developers can roughly triangulate the user's position.

This isn't very helpful on a large scale, however, since there is no central database of iBeacon locations --?such data is by and large only usable by the owner of the beacons. To address the larger problem, Apple acquired small indoor mapping firm WiFiSLAM in early 2013.
Before the acquisition, WiFiSLAM's team promised indoor location accuracy to within 2.5 meters.
WiFiSLAM's technology combines data from on-device sensors with Wi-Fi signal trilateration to plot a user's path. The Wi-Fi signals provide relative positioning, while on-board sensors record movement.

Here's an example: your iPhone could analyze the signal strength of Wi-Fi networks around your house to determine approximately how far you are from each access point. As you move around, the accelerometer, magnetometer, and gyroscope on the handset measure forces exerted by maneuvers like turning left and then right again to avoid a coffee table.

Combining all of that data together over a period of time can bring detailed patterns to light; e.g. "there is an obstacle three feet from point A that can be avoided by moving left two feet." Extending that data capture and pattern recognition to many users --?say, the thousands of iPhone owners that visit a shopping mall in a given day --?allows for the development of detailed and highly accurate maps without the aid of overhead satellites or dedicated data gathering initiatives.


Schematics of unannounced Apple iBeacon hardware. | Source: FCC


A number of iOS developers polled by AppleInsider were split on whether detailed indoor location such as this would be included in iOS 9, though most did agree that it will likely make the cut for iOS 10. Apple could also choose to begin passively collecting this data now without exposing it to developers, building a data warehouse in preparation for a future release.

What else?

It's not strictly a new feature, but Apple will almost certainly reveal improvements to its point-of-interest search in iOS 9. The company acquired social search startup Spotsetter last year, a deal thought to have been made to gain access to Spotsetter's recommendation technology.

One possibility that was almost universally rejected by developers we spoke to was the availability of a web-based Maps API. Though Apple has already created one --?as evidenced by its appearance in iCloud's Find my iPhone --?it's likely to remain an internal tool.

Another unlikely addition is a crowdsourced "street view" feature the company detailed in a patent issued last year. That system is seen as facing "hard computer science problems" that are yet to be solved.

Of course, ever-secretive Apple could also be planning One More Thing that has yet to leak out of Infinite Loop.
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Comments

  • Reply 1 of 97
    asciiascii Posts: 5,941member
    Having a good mapping service is probably criticial in getting car makers interested in CarPlay. If that's a managerial priority maybe the indoor maps can wait.
  • Reply 2 of 97
    knowitallknowitall Posts: 1,235member
    It would be nice if the hundreds of billions that go to waste right now are used for a network of satellites showing realtime video of the earth and giving connections everywhere.
    Would be a big premium for iOS.
  • Reply 3 of 97

    I wonder what percentage of Apple customers in general would use a crowd-sourced traffic app if it meant giving up the extra privacy. Maybe it's just the AI crowd that freaks about that stuff so much?

     

    I wrote a piece that does the same thing as wifislam, but for a defense customer. I got to the point that I could demonstrate it, and it was about 1m accuracy without too many other devices nearby. We demonstrated it at AUSA, and it dropped to ~5m with all the interference. Not a simple problem to solve well. Combining with other sensors is probably the only way to produce a reliable system, and I was working on a wall counting system based on corners people walked around, then estimating the signal fall-off for a given type of construction based on the signal going through x number of walls.

     

    A possible 4th way for Apple to push maps forward would be the release of a solid browser-based mapping solution and a means of transferring work to mobile devices.

     

    Quote:

    Originally Posted by ascii View Post



    Having a good mapping service is probably criticial in getting car makers interested in CarPlay. If that's a managerial priority maybe the indoor maps can wait.



    Up to this point, I haven't seen any evidence that the quality of a mapping application is of any consideration at all to auto manufacturers :)

  • Reply 4 of 97
    gbdocgbdoc Posts: 59member
    I wonder if Apple's hookup with TomTom isn't part of the problem; I don't know if it's still in place. TomTom was once a great, innovative company, with very good hardware, software, and data. That seems to have changed over the years - just take a look at the complaints in the TomTom user forums, and how unresponsive the company is.
  • Reply 5 of 97
    blazarblazar Posts: 270member
    Where is the ibeacon location services for the home? I was hoping that homekit would be location aware.
  • Reply 6 of 97
    I wonder if anybody at Apple ever actually uses their Maps for driving on a route that they don't know. The original maps was superior in that the user could pan the map to see what was coming; i.e. a Left followed by a Right turn. Waze allows this, but for some stupid reason rotates the map as you zoom out which is disorientating & make no sense

    Also the "overview" was out to the current location to the the end, not the complete route which becomes useless to see at that point.

    I wish there was a button to map "Directions to Here" by the address of a Contact; instead of needing 4 clicks.

    Lastly, one of the things I like best about Waze if the larger font, so I can quickly glance at the ETA while driving to tell my client. The Apple font is so small and with little contrast that I can't glance quickly.
  • Reply 7 of 97
    gatorguygatorguy Posts: 20,283member
    I wonder if anybody at Apple ever actually uses their Maps for driving on a route that they don't know. The original maps was superior in that the user could pan the map to see what was coming; i.e. a Left followed by a Right turn. Waze allows this, but for some stupid reason rotates the map as you zoom out which is disorientating & make no sense.

    Go to Settings>Advanced and check "Lock North-up mode"
  • Reply 8 of 97
    clemynxclemynx Posts: 1,509member
    Not a word on search? Is still catastrophic compared to Google maps.
    The UI of the Google maps app itself is way more useful and easy to use. It's fast, it presents all the relevant data much better, and the options to edit data are much more prominent, pushing people to change things by themselves (maybe that's not what apple wants though). It's also easier to switch from one result to another. I think Apple has more work to do now than it had before on maps.
  • Reply 9 of 97
    One thing that annoys me with Maps is that it doesn't recognize when you want to change the route. The other night I was purposely avoiding the freeway, yet Siri and Maps continued to scream at me to turn to the freeway. I had to ignore her instructions about six times before she finally gave me a surface route. The built-in navigation in my parents old Odyssey would adjust after the second miss.
  • Reply 10 of 97
    tbelltbell Posts: 3,146member
    ascii wrote: »
    Having a good mapping service is probably criticial in getting car makers interested in CarPlay. If that's a managerial priority maybe the indoor maps can wait.


    Have you actually used a built in vehicle navigation system? The maps stink compared to Apple's Maps. The main problem is it is a big pain to update the maps, and often the systems are underpowered. I think Apple has spent a lot of time fixing data and the effort shows.
  • Reply 11 of 97
    tbelltbell Posts: 3,146member
    One thing that annoys me with Maps is that it doesn't recognize when you want to change the route. The other night I was purposely avoiding the freeway, yet Siri and Maps continued to scream at me to turn to the freeway. I had to ignore her instructions about six times before she finally gave me a surface route. The built-in navigation in my parents old Odyssey would adjust after the second miss.


    That is a thing I think Apple does better than Google's Map App. However, it doesn't autocorrect well if the Internet connection is slow.
  • Reply 12 of 97

    I've been using Apple Maps almost exclusively since it came out. If I haven't gotten lost yet in the sticks of central PA, I'd say it's not too shabby. I use TomTom (app) if I'm somewhere without a data connection and need to get out (not dependent on data). I'll also use TomTom for major trips, since it's not constantly pulling data (performance only - I have unlimited data). It also helps keep the iPhone a little cooler, since it's not pulling as much data along with GPS use. 

  • Reply 13 of 97
    Google Maps still trump Apple’s in big and small ways. I use Apple Maps daily but you can see the 8 year head start and Google’s keen sense of making use of big data sets that Apple still struggles with.

    I spend loads of time cleaning up and submitting corrections to Apple’s overlay of business pins. They're approximately accurate but nowhere near the precision of Google Maps. If you’re a bit obsessive compulsive, like me, take a few moments a week and use the Report A Problem button in Maps to submit more precise pin points for businesses in your area. Apple notifies you fairly quickly when the fixes are implemented. You can also submit for outdated satellite data—though I’vs never seen this data ever updated.

    My wish for Apple Maps this year is the ability to peak ahead when you’re getting turn-by-turn directions. Google Maps nails this.
  • Reply 14 of 97
    Quote:

    Originally Posted by TBell View Post





    Have you actually used a built in vehicle navigation system? The maps stink compared to Apple's Maps. The main problem is it is a big pain to update the maps, and often the systems are underpowered. I think Apple has spent a lot of time fixing data and the effort shows.



    Which is why I always prefer to buy a car without GPS built-in. 

  • Reply 15 of 97
    steven n.steven n. Posts: 1,108member
    My wish list:

    1) route preferences like freeway? Tolls? Fastest/shortest?
    2) waypoints and true trip planning.
    3) easy to use detour.

    I find Google's iOS map app confusing and slow. It scrolls poorly and data delivery is sluggish at times. It has great POI data and search though. I hop Apple gets a great update for iOS 9.
  • Reply 16 of 97
    Apple thought $1 billion was too much for Waze with its up-to-date maps, POI data and huge user base, but was happy to waste spend $3bn on Beats? Maps & navigation is a really core function IMO to a smartphone, streaming music and crappy headphones isn't.

    Apple Maps is only a few years old, whereas OS X had been worked on for around 8 years before Snow Leopard's "cleaning up". Was the original architecture really so bad that it needed a complete rewrite after a couple of years?

    I agree that search isn't too good, POIs are improving but still aren't that great either. I've submitted several issues several times before they were actually corrected. One was a major issue too, two town names had somehow become interchanged. When searching, there aren't any suggestions that are relevant, and a small misspelling overrides the "search locally" code and finds places spelt the same as you typed 2000 miles away, even if when spelt correctly, the place is 3 miles away. Either that or it just returns "No results found".

    With Google Maps, the search always seems to come back with something, it does best guess. Apple Maps seems go with whatever came up first in its database. Apple's search seems to really struggle with decoding addresses, though it's better than it was. At first, if there weren't any commas delimiting the different parts of the address, it'd give up. At least now it sometimes gets it right.

    That said, I prefer to use Apple Maps, the navigation voice and directions are nice and clear. When the mapping is correct, it's easy to read and clear. A web version would be good though, I think.
    steven n. wrote: »
    My wish list:

    1) route preferences like freeway? Tolls? Fastest/shortest?

    I would really like that option too. It's ridiculous that it knows there are tolls on a particular route, but has no option to avoid them.
  • Reply 17 of 97
    mnbob1mnbob1 Posts: 262member
    Quote:

    Originally Posted by ascii View Post



    Having a good mapping service is probably criticial in getting car makers interested in CarPlay. If that's a managerial priority maybe the indoor maps can wait.



    I don't see a problem with this at all. There's nothing wrong with Apple's mapping app that car makers would find "critical" enough to make a decision to not use CarPlay. They are looking at demographics of their customers to make the decision to include it, if their target customers have a high percentage of iPhone users they are building it in. You can see this especially in that the high end auto makers were the first to announce CarPlay integration.

  • Reply 18 of 97
    Apple Maps seems to be ok in general: except the search algorithm it is using. Often, it does not find the address, I am looking for - google immediately knows my places. I do not see, that this has been considered by many people talking about.

    Maybe some testing and comparing of search examples could help to create awareness. Evidently, Google is still the king of search in the internet. They will keep their monopoly, as long as nobody can compete with them in this respect.
  • Reply 19 of 97
    mnbob1mnbob1 Posts: 262member
    Quote:

    Originally Posted by knowitall View Post



    It would be nice if the hundreds of billions that go to waste right now are used for a network of satellites showing realtime video of the earth and giving connections everywhere.

    Would be a big premium for iOS.



    There are a network of satellites that are capturing real time images of earth. They are being used by the military and intelligence agencies. If we actually knew what was being captured in high resolution it would freak us all out. To allow a private company to use the data would make Google Earth images about us all look like nothing at all. Don't look for it to come to a private company anytime soon.

  • Reply 20 of 97
    Navigating inside buildings isn't an issue with most of us. We either know the way or follow the signs.

    What is an issue is getting map data where cellular data coverage is spotty. Apple needs to give their Maps app a world-class UI for downloading data in advanced, including specialized map data for hiking, skiing and off-roading. Not everyone is using their iPhone to find the nearest shoe store.
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