One of the sneaky cool Apple announcements at yesterday’s WWDC Keynote was the new Look Around feature for Apple Maps. Mixed in with some nice, but rather routine upgrades like Favorites and Collections, Look Around stood out as a potentially huge change for Maps that could help Apple take on one of Google Maps’ biggest advantages: Street View.
Apple collectively learned very quickly that you can’t just stitch together mapping from disparate sources in a nice looking app and call it good. What they had on their hands on day one was a real mess. However, to Tim Cook and Apple’s credit, they didn’t give up on it. Years later, Maps is a solid and very competent mapping solution. I don’t use it all the time now, but when I do, it gets me where I’m going. There is no doubt that it has come a long way since that very bad intro to the world.
While Apple has made many improvements, Google has always remained several steps ahead of them in mapping. They already had a big lead when Apple started and it’s certainly in their interest to do anything they can to keep it. You could argue that Apple helped them build that big lead, since Google Maps provided the data behind the original Maps in iOS. Google got all of the navigation data for all iOS users for those first five years.
One of Google’s biggest mapping advantages over Apple and others is Street View. Whether you are driving, biking or walking, it’s a lot easier to find your destination when you can actually look at the actual location before you get there. Even if you aren’t going somewhere, it can be a cool and fun way to explore someplace you’ve never been. It was a revolutionary feature when Google released it and it’s only gotten better and wider-ranging over the years.
With the first run of Maps, Apple tried to take a shortcut to providing something similar to Street View. Flyover was Apple’s feature that took 3D aerial mapping data and used it to create a 3D overhead model of the map. Unfortunately, the models broke down in different places, morphing and distorting structures and generally creating a mess in places. Even when it was clean, it wasn’t a replacement for Street View. Then Google also adopted the feature themselves and that was the end of that.
To their credit, Apple wised up and put their shortcut days behind them years ago. They took up the essential task of putting boots on the ground and doing mapping the old fashioned way: hard work and many miles. As they did this, their mapping and directions gradually improved. More recently, Apple took another page out of Google’s book and started sending LIDAR-equipped vehicles al over the country, starting with the West Coast of the US. The result is a much higher resolution map that they are going to roll out nationwide by the end of the year.
We already knew about this, as the higher resolution map was announced last year. In fact, it is already available for many cities in the West. The new, more detailed map certainly does look like a huge improvement and it will bring Apple one step closer to parity with Google.
That said, the Look Around feature that was demoed yesterday came completely out of left field. It wasn’t rumored or leaked. No one was predicting it. People have wondered for a long time if Apple would take the time and effort to duplicate Google’s Street View. Well, the answer now appears to be yes. In fact, at least in the demo, it looks better.
The beginning of the Look Around demo was nice, but it looked like a carbon copy of Street View, for the most part. However, when the presenter showed off moving between locations and how smooth detailed the animation was, that was very impressive.
Then she took a look at a location that was available and was able to click and get all of the details on it. Like I said yesterday, this AR view of the street looks like it was tailor-made for Apple’s coming AR Glasses. It could be a huge feature for the new product if they can pull off making this kind of experience available everywhere.
The key to all of this is how far Apple is going to take it. Look Around made for a really impressive demo on stage at WWDC. So did Flyover once upon a time. Will Apple go as far as Google has with Look Around, or are they still just taking the easy way? Will they make this available for every street in every major city, or will this just be a tech demo available in a limited areas? The truth is that they didn’t tell us that yet. They really didn’t even hint at it.
I personally think it’s not important that all areas be available in Look Around on day one of iOS 13. The important thing is Apple being transparent in their intentions for the feature and to keep rolling out new areas consistently until they do have a large chunk of the world covered. That’s no small task, but Apple is no small company. They have the money and manpower to do it. And with AR Glasses that will greatly benefit from features like this coming, they also have a real incentive to do it.
If Apple does the same as Google and makes Look Around available for every area they are doing detailed mapping, then that will really be something. It will show a commitment to approaching mapping the right way that wasn’t there at the beginning of Maps. It’s good to have competition in all mobile hardware and software spaces, but it has felt like no one would every bother to really challenge Google in mapping. They may never catch up, but it’s good to see Apple pushing in that direction. Renewed competition in mapping is good for all consumers.