What iOS 6 might mean for Maps

That Apple is working on a substantial update to its Maps app seems a foregone conclusion at this point. But aside from the occasional vague rumor, any features that might be contained in such an update have remained shrouded in shadow.

Maps is clearly an important part of iOS, but Apple’s let it languish even as other parties—like Android—have leapt ahead. If iOS 6 does indeed bring a new version of Maps, there are some features that might help it catch up to, and overtake, the competition.

Turn-by-turn: Apple doesn’t particularly mind playing catch-up to its competitors, especially if it means taking the time to create a fully thought-out implementation rather than be first to market. While there are plenty of viable third-party GPS apps for iOS, they’re often pricey additions with hefty downloaded map packs. And it has to be galling for the company to lack a feature that Google built into Android back in 2009. This is one place that Apple’s mobile competitors have had the advantage, so it seems a likely area for Apple to focus its efforts.

Siri: Earlier this year, Google added the ability to specify a navigation destination by voice, but Siri’s natural language interactions are potentially an even bigger boon. While the virtual assistant already lets you specify a navigation direction, it can’t yet step you through the process, or help you, say, change your destination mid-trip. Plus, it’s a nice improvement over most GPS units’ synthesized voices, which lack much of a vocabulary beyond “Recalculating.”

Dashboard mode: The current directions interface for Google Maps on iOS is sufficient for cases when you’re navigating from the passenger seat, or even on foot, but if you’re driving solo, it’s downright dangerous. Siri’s voice navigation might help diminish that risk, but in situations when you do need to go hands-on, a more dashboard-friendly interface would be quite handy. And if you guessed that Android already has something similar, you get a gold star.

My new jam: Apple's already said it's looking to create an improved traffic service.

Better traffic: Apple’s already admitted that it’s been collecting anonymized information from iOS device users to create “a crowd-sourced traffic database.” While traffic support has been built into mapping on both Android and iOS for a while, it could always stand to have its reliability improved—current predictions can often be hit or miss. By taking advantage of the millions of iOS devices in use, Apple can potentially use that data to build an even better model of traffic situations in real time.

Offline mapping: Another Android advantage: Its turn-by-turn implementation caches data about your route so that if you lose network connectivity during your trip, you won’t lose all your data. That’s a good way to strike a balance between the convenience of downloaded maps and their hefty sizes; it’s definitely a feature Apple should embrace.

Cycling directions: On the Web and on Android, Google Maps offers the ability to provide directions for cyclists. That’s not only a handy feature, but it’s an important one: Biking directions often conform to neither driving nor walking directions. Not only could it help cyclists create more efficient routes, but it could have a positive impact on safety as well, helping ensure that cyclists don’t find themselves in a dangerous traffic situation.

Preferred routes: Making directions smarter always gets a thumbs up. Speaking as someone born and raised in a city where you’re more often than not told “You can’t get there from here,” it’d be nice if the mapping data could be improved to take advantage of local knowledge. Whether that can be accomplished by harnessing traffic data to figure out how to avoid congestion spots, or otherwise analyzing routes that travelers commonly take, is unclear. It’s a challenging problem to solve, but the rewards of having best-in-class directions extend beyond just bragging rights.

Don't stop: Google Maps's Web interface lets you add multiple destinations.

Multiple stops: Ever need to figure out the most efficient way to make pick up a friend on the way to your destination? On iOS, Maps are a strictly location-to-destination affair. But Google Maps on the Web allows you to add subsequent destinations, helping you plot complicated routes to multiple places, potentially eliminating redundant or convoluted parts of your route.

Augmented reality: It’s a feature that’s cropped up in plenty of apps, but it’s always seemed a bit like a solution in search of a problem. Could an Apple-implemented augmented-reality option find a home in mapping? Rumors suggest that Apple is using a 3D-mapping technology that it picked up when it acquired C3 Technologies, but it’s unclear exactly what the implementation might be. Perhaps it could be used to beef up turn-by-turn directions by showing real-world landmarks, or even provide points of interest like nearby restaurants, lodgings, or gas prices.

[Senior editor Dan Moren is always on the lookout for a faster route and a better shortcut.]

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