“Apple buys smaller technology companies from time to time, and we generally do not discuss our purpose or plans.”
Those who have followed the company for any length of time know that sentence is about as close as Apple ever gets to outright confirming that it’s acquired another firm. Most recently, the company in question was Coherent Navigation, which was reportedly working on a more accurate and robust version of GPS.
In and of itself, that acquisition isn’t particularly surprising, but Apple’s purchase of Coherent isn’t an isolated event. It’s one of 10 known acquisitions by Apple in the mapping and location arena since 2009. If two is coincidence and three’s a trend, then 10 is probably in the vicinity of a smoking gun.
Of course, it’s long been clear that Apple is interested in location data and mapping, and has been even since before it launched its own Maps app back in 2012. But so far, it’s been hard to draw a line from the companies it’s bought to actual shipping features.
With iOS 9 around the corner, however, it’s possible that the company is preparing to make yet another foray into maps on both mobile devices and the desktop. Even if iOS 9 is focused largely on performance improvements and bug fixes, Maps could still be a tentpole of the release. And I say it’s long overdue.
Rumors and hearsay
The launch of Maps in 2012 was one of the most public disappointments to face Tim Cook’s Apple. Rife with errors and poor location data, Apple Maps became the butt of more than a few jokes—and that mockery was hardly undeserved. Cook went so far as to publicly apologize for the snafu, and even pointed users in the direction of the company’s competitors.
Since then, what development there’s been on maps has been fairly minor. With every new year and new release since iOS 6, we’ve expected big sweeping changes, but somehow those whispered about improvements and updates have never really materialized.
The stakes have gotten higher in the intervening time, as well. Were Apple to come out at WWDC and say that they’d fixed all the existing problems with Maps, they’d certainly get a round of applause—but it would be the polite, lukewarm, “it’s about time” kind, not the truly ecstatic, foot-stomping thunderous variety. The window for delivering a Maps that’s “good enough” has passed; the company should be looking to not only match but surpass its competitors.
Apple has its work cut out for it. Not only have its competitors not been standing still, but neither have its customers. In the years since Apple Maps debuted, many users have become accustomed to turning to alternative solutions, chief among them Google Maps—the very service that Apple Maps was intended to supplant.
Apple needs to take a cue from its own playbook: when the company launched the iTunes Store in 2003, it was to provide an alternative to what was out there. The company has always functioned at its best when its made a device or a technology so good that it made people want to switch.
But in order to convince its customers to give up whatever app they’ve turned to, or even just get them to trust Apple Maps again, there are a number of areas where Apple needs to spend its time and energy. Off the top of my head, here are just a few:
Public transit After three years, there’s no excuse for the lack of public transportation directions in Apple Maps. Yes, building out such a database is time consuming, and it’s tricky to make sure that it stays up to date. Hard problems, to be sure, but far from unsolveable ones, especially with the resources Apple has its disposal. Right now the lack of public transit directions in Maps is not just annoying, it’s embarrassing. There’s been some excellent third-party work in this area, with apps like Transit and Citymapper, and it’s great that those options exist. But to have to turn to them—or Google Maps—for the last three years is a significant gap in Apple’s user experience. At least a couple of the location-based companies Apple’s purchased—Embark and HopStop—are right in the wheelhouse here, and it’s hard to imagine what Apple bought them for, if not this.
Indoor mapping It’s not a feature that’s become commonplace yet, but Apple’s competitors, including Google, are increasingly going not just broad for their mapping efforts, but deep as well. Being able to zoom into an office building or a shopping mall and see exactly which stores are where is useful, and right now, it’s a place where Apple Maps comes up woefully short. As in public transit, this is another place that Apple’s invested wisely: WiFiSlam, which it bought in 2013, was working on technology of precisely this sort.
Street View It’s a Google hallmark, but other mapping solutions, like Microsoft, have begun offering street-level imagery as well. Street View on the iPhone and iPad was always kind of a cool demo—even my late grandmother was impressed the first time I pulled up a picture of her house on my phone—but it’s useful, too. As someone who likes to know his way around, especially when going to new and unfamiliar locations, it’s handy for scouting out just where I’m supposed to be going for that meeting or appointment. One of the theories swirling around the supposed Apple cars spotted a few months back, and my personal favorite explanation, was that the company was collecting street-level data for mapping. But if that were the case, it would need to be either taking advantage of a fleet of such vehicles, or acquiring the data from another source that had already done the heavy lifting.
Accuracy The big one. Google Maps remains the gold standard in online mapping, and the company’s devoted a lot of time and energy to the endeavor. While it has its shortcomings, it’s right more often than it isn’t, and it’s tough to say the same about Apple Maps. It’s certainly improved over the last couple years, but there’s plenty of work left to do. I’m not the only person I know who regularly double checks locations in Google Maps before setting out, just in case. And, in the eventuality that there is a discrepancy, I know which one of them gets my trust.
Get your kicks
When it comes to Maps, Apple’s got a tough road ahead of it—if you’ll pardon the expression. But it’s been steadily building up talent and technology over the last several years, and a steady stream of reports about internal testing of features and job postings related to maps indicate that it’s not sitting still. I certainly don’t see Tim Cook or the rest of the Apple team as the kind of people to take a misstep like Maps lying down.
But Cook’s Apple is more developed than it was in those early days, and it’s also proved willing to swallow its pride and admit that it’s fallen short of the mark in the past, and will aim to do better in the future. So don’t be surprised if this year’s WWDC finds Maps back in the glare of the spotlight, polished and ready for a second run at the job.
Dan has been writing about all things Apple since 2006, when he first started contributing to the MacUser blog. He's a prolific podcaster and the author of the Galactic Cold War series, including his latest, The Nova Incident, coming in July 2022.