Before today’s WWDC, there were a lot of hints that there would be some big announcements from Apple on new features for maps as part of the iOS8/Yosemite launch. Most of the speculation was on transit routing, including a pretty detailed review from 9to5Mac, complete with screen shots. So I watched the Tim & Craig show from start to finish, and here’s what I saw: Nothing.
That’s not strictly true. In fact you saw a lot of quick shots of maps integrated into many of the new things that Apple did announce: maps in Notifications, Calendars, Messenger, Family Sharing, Photos and probably a few others that snuck in while my attention lagged. That by itself says something: Maps are a utility that will be threaded throughout the Apple applications. That’s not new; Google has been doing that on its services for a while but it did come though in the presentation. But there was no big news, no big feature or even any real mention of maps at all (except a weird nod to maps in China at the very end).
That’s a little surprising given that Apple has been making a big push on maps for the last year. Five of their thirteen acquisitions in 2013 were in mapping and location technologies (if you count Broadmap) and they have consistently had a pretty staggering set of job reqs posted for engineers in the Apple Geo team. And they’ve been hiring some pretty good people. So I was surprised not to see anything at WWDC. What are all those people doing over there anyway?
Since Apple never tells me anything, I can only guess. Here are my guesses:
- “Hey, We’ve fixed this” doesn’t play at WWDC: Two years ago, Apple famously over-promised and under-delivered on maps at WWDC. Since then, they have done a really good job of correcting many of the issues with data. Two of their acquisitions were aimed at this as were a lot of the hires they have made. Today, Apple maps work well. I’d argue that Google still wins in search and geocoding but Apple has a very nice product. But pointing out that the basic stuff works now isn’t good theatre and WWDC is nothing if not theatre. (Note: I hear rumblings about the data overseas…I am not sure if non-US users would agree that it is “fixed”.)
- “We’ve got that too” doesn’t play either: I suspect Apple is coming out with transit routing (courtesy of Hopstop and Embark team/tech), but why highlight a feature that you were roundly criticized for not having and just now come out with…especially if it only gets you parity with your competitor? Transit routing should have been in v1.0 instead of Flyover. Coming out with it two years late doesn’t get you many points unless you do something dramatically better. From the previews, it doesn’t.
- They don’t have anything to say on their own data…yet: I believe that Apple is at a competitive disadvantage to Google because they don’t own their own data. In just one example, Mike Blumenthal detailed the time it takes for Apple to correct map data (working through their data supplier) vs Google (one year vs two weeks). Given the resources Apple is putting into Geo, I think they will address this some day. But today was not the day.
Ultimately, it remains to be seen if Apple views maps as an area where they can establish competitive advantage or if they are just shooting for “good enough”. There is a case for good enough. Usage numbers show that if the default map is serviceable, it will get a lot of users just by being the default. Most people just don’t download an alternative unless they need to. That’s important because it means that they don’t need to be in the arms race with Google. It allows Apple to offer maps as a utility for all those other properties where it popped up in today’s talk. It will also be important to have a good navigation experience in order for CarPlay to be effective, but I think their nav app has been good since day 1 (once you get the destination right). Unlike Google, Apple doesn’t need to drive a compelling local search experience off their maps. Maybe good enough is good enough.
But they’re hiring some really good people and putting a lot into maps. I don’t think you attract those people to a vision of building a good-enough product. I still believe (hope, maybe) that there is more to come from the Apple Geo team, if not at WWDC 2014, at some event in the future.