On Friday, Matthew Panzarino of TechCrunch posted a great article about Apple’s new ambitions for its Maps platform. This article isn’t short, but it is well worth the read, especially if you are familiar with Apple’s early struggles with Maps after its release.
I definitely remember the iOS 6 Beta and release very well, which was honestly a disappointment all the way around. iOS 5 was the first Developer Beta that I ran on my devices, so I was very excited when it came time to load iOS 6. Unfortunately, it was really nothing more than iOS 5.5, and a big reason for that was the amount of time Apple put into releasing what turned out to be a poor Maps app. All of the above left a bad taste in a lot of mouths at the time, even among hardcore Apple fans like me. In fact, the last time I seriously considered moving to another mobile OS was after the announcement of iOS 6.
Apple has certainly come a long way since then, and to be honest, so has Maps. The app was revamped with a much better interface a couple of years ago, and there has been a slow but steady stream of improvements over the last five. We have better traffic information, lane guidance, transit information, and more comprehensive business and place locations now. Maps still isn’t a true rival to Google Maps, but it is a good app and service in its own right at this point. Apple turned it from a joke into a solid and relatable app.
What makes me happy about this article is that Apple seems to recognize that good just isn’t good enough. For years many of us, including myself, have wondered about how Apple’s employees and executives views some of its products. They speak in nothing but superlatives during their events, even when they were talking about the original version of Maps, and they still do this in regards to Siri. That has always made me wonder if they actually understand how their users and fans view their products. Do they really believe the marketing hype they spout during the presentations?
According to Mr Panzarino, this initiative to rebuild Maps has been going on for four years now. Apple hasn’t said a word about it until now, but there have been clues out there for us to find. Their Apple Maps vans have been spotted on the road back to 2015. I guess we all just assumed that they work working on place data or just making corrections. In reality, they have been rebuilding their entire mapping database from the ground up, which is obviously a huge undertaking.
This new Maps initiative is a very important step for Apple. It shows that they are willing to put their enormous pile of cash were their mouth is. When they need to build something and own it, they are going to do it themselves. The best part is that they have been willing to play the long game here. We haven’t even seen any of the fruit of all of this work they are putting into this new map database yet. It will all roll out over the next year, and I am definitely excited to see it.
Another detail from the article worth noting is that Apple’s focus on privacy remains at the heart of the work they are doing on Maps. The data is encrypted when collected, and the people doing the work never seen any private information from individuals, cars, houses, etc that make their way into the data set. All of this information either is removed or obscured before anyone ever sees it. Even if we opt in to allow out data to be used to improve Maps or help with traffic information, it is always anonymous. It is good to see Apple proving that their strict user privacy policies aren’t holding them back from delivering the good in mapping.
While I am happy that Maps should take a much bigger step forward than any of us expected coming into this year. I am even more interested in the thought process behind these changes. If Apple is willing to put four years into improving Maps for a rollout we haven’t even seen yet, then it gives me hope that they are doing the exact same thing with Siri right now. As important as Maps is, Siri, AI, and machine learning are even more vital to the future of Apple and their products. Even though we haven’t seen the evidence, maybe they are taking the same kind of “all the way” replacement approach to Siri, as well. I’ve been wondering when the positive results all of the acquisitions and hires would show up. Maybe our patience will be rewarded sooner than later. This also gives me a good feeling that Apple’s coming video service and content will be done right from the beginning.
As much money and resources as Apple has at their disposal, it has been strange to see them struggle so much in certain areas. Whether it was culture, lack of leadership, hubris, impatience, or other reasons, they have never been the best at any service offering beyond the original rollout of iTunes many years ago. As critical as services will be to the future of the company, it is good to see that Tim Cook and Apple’s leadership do see the problems and are working on them. We may not see the results as fast as we want them, but if the solutions are as comprehensive as what Mr Panzarino describes, then we will likely be happy with the results.