What to expect in Apple's upcoming Maps app

Apple will unveil iOS 6 next week at WWDC, and the Maps app will reportedly be getting a complete overhaul. Here's what to expect.

Though once close partners joined together by a common foe (Microsoft), Apple and Google are now nothing short of fierce adversaries. The rift between Apple and the search giant of course began when Google decided to get into the smartphone business, a move which Steve Jobs viewed as an ultimate betrayal given that former Google CEO Eric Schmidt used to sit on Apple's board.

Now Apple and Google's drama aside, it's no secret that Apple has an innate desire to control as much of the technology that goes into their products as possible. And with Google now a legitimate and arguably growing competitive threat to Apple's iPhone, it's hardly surprising that Apple would want to lessen its reliance on Google technologies. You think Apple likes that Google currently has two apps (YouTube and Maps) on the prime piece of real estate that is the iOS homescreen?

Me neither.

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In just a few days WWDC 2012 will be upon us, and while it's unlikely we'll get a sneak peak at Apple's next-gen iPhone, everyone is eagerly anticipating the unveiling of the OS that will power Apple's forthcoming iPhone - iOS 6.

For months, a growing number of rumors and reports have been building and pointing to a completely revamped Maps app in iOS 6 wherein Apple will reportedly ditch Google Maps in favor of an in-house solution.

But what can we expect to see in Apple's version of Maps? How seriously is Apple taking its homegrown Maps initiative? Will it be cool and sufficiently feature-rich to satiate the masses who have grown accustomed and reliant on Google Maps?

Below, I'll map out a brief history of Apple's in-house mapping program while simultaneously touching upon some of the features we might expect to find in Apple's take on Maps.

Step 1 - PlaceBase

Apple's interest in doing its own version of a Maps app, no doubt catalyzed by Google's Andriod, can perhaps be traced back to 2009 when Apple acquired an innovative mapping company called PlaceBase. PlaceBase is often referenced with respect to Apple's Map plans, but most reports don't really provide much detail as to what PlaceBase was.

Here's a quick overview.

Believe it or not, PlaceBase was an intuitive piece of mapping software that actually preceded Google Maps and was originally positioned as a pay-service. But since Google likes to operate on the freemium model, PlaceBase was quickly forced to develop an entirely new business model if it wanted to stay afloat once Google Maps was released.

Consequently, PlaceBase began developing innovative aggregation options for maps. As an example, PlaceBase's technology enabled users to aggregate information such as crime data and traffic reports and overlay that information over corresponding locations on a map. Other types of information aggregated into "layers" by PlaceBase included data regarding school performance, mortage rates, foreclosures, health information, weather information, extensive demographic information, and much more.

As an example of how the layering system might look, below is a map of Chicago overlayed with a "layer" of median age demographic information.

Upon acquiring the company, many PlaceBase employees, including co-founder and CEO Jaron Waldman, joined Apple where they quickly formed Apple's new Geo Team. All that said, it's entirely possible that Apple's upcoming Maps app will give users a number of interesting options with which to glean more information about geographic locations than what is currently possible with Google's offering.

If this at all sounds intriguing, check out this YouTube video of Waldman highlighting some of PlaceBase's features.

Step 1.5 - Strengthen the iOS Mapping team

Further highlighting Apple's efforts to put its own spin on Mapping, Apple put out a job posting in late 2009 seeking an iPhone Software Engineer to join, what was then, Apple's nascent Map team.

The job listing read in part, "We want to take Maps to the next level, rethink how users use Maps and change the way people find things. We want to do this in a seamless, highly interactive and enjoyable way. We’ve only just started."

Clearly, Apple's focus doesn't solely consist of removing Google Maps from the iPhone. Rather, Apple wants to completely "rethink" the way we interact with Maps in the first place. It's a surefire bet that the end-result will not be a lazily tossed-together alternative to Google Maps, but rather something completely different and, we can only imagine, better.

Highlighting Apple's dedication to its homegrown Maps app, the WSJ recently profiled Apple's transition from Google Maps to an in-house solution, noting that the GeoTeam, when it first got started, was situated directly across the hall from Steve Jobs' office. And in a "sign of the geo team's growing importance," the Journal writes, "Apple moved it into the esteemed iOS software unit, which is run by Scott Forstall, who oversees many of Apple's top-priority projects."

Step 2 - Poly9

In July 2010, Apple further solidified its team of mapping experts when it acquired the Quebec-based mapping firm Poly9, a company highly regarded for its talent and creativity.

Before being acquired by Apple, Poly9 had an intuitive 3D satellite mapping service similar to Google earth, enabling users to browse around the world via a 3D globe. Notably, Poly9's software was very lightweight, always great for a mobile device, and helped power apps like the NORAD Santa Tracker.

It's also worth pointing out that Poy9's offering provided "statistics on their virtual locations."

So if we put Poly9 and PlaceBase together, it's easy to imagine some of the possibilities.

Imagine an interface, for example, whereby a user could explore a virtual 3D globe and ascertain information about any location in the world. Zoom in on Italy and be presented with news stories from around the country. Zoom in even further on Rome, for example, and be presented with weather for the week, local sports scores, crime statistics, the cost of flights to Rome from your current location (similar to Kayak Explore), demographic info - a virtual almanac at your fingertips.

And in conjunction with the aforementioned acquisitions, the WSJ notes that Apple has been vigorously working on features in an attempt outmaneuever Google Maps.

Apple's geo team worked on features that might be able to one-up Google. Apple kept the details secret, even in-house. When one member of the geo team asked another what he was working on, he did little more than shrug, says one person familiar with the matter.

This should hardly come as a surprise given that Apple executives have long stated that they only get into a particular market when they feel they can offer something better than anything else out there.

In short, Apple is putting a lot of resources into its upcoming Maps app.

Step 2.5 - More Mapping hires

A few months after the PlaceBase acquisition, Apple posted yet another telling job opening, this time looking for navigation software experts to add to its iOS Maps team.

Described as a "ground floor opportunity" with a "rapidly growing product team" (likely the Geo Team), the job description specifically mentioned an interest in candidates with "valuable knowledge" regarding the development of navigation software and computational geometry. Might this also point to turn-by-turn directions, a fact recently alluded to by the WSJ?

Also of note is an August 2011 patent application from PlaceBase co-founders, and current Apple employees, Jaron Waldman and Moran Ben-David.

The patent is titled "Schematic Maps" and was described by Edible Apple as follows.

The patent application describes a method of displaying map information as to highlight pertinent information and obscure superfluous and potentially distracting information. In other words, by blurring out portions of a map that aren’t relevant to a user’s desired route, for example, navigation can be made a helluva lot easier – particularly for folks on smaller screens like the iPhone where map data can easily become congested.

The patent also describes how different map visualizations can be used to more prominently feature locations that can typically be difficult to find, such as landmarks.

Step 3 - 3D Mapping Technology

And now for what may very well be the "one more thing" feature for Maps in iOS 6 - 3D mapping.

In October 2011, 9to5Mac confirmed that Apple, in 2009, acquired C3 Technologies, a company specializing in eye-catching 3D mapping software that is absolutely mind blowing.

C3 Technologies takes ordinary satellite imagery, the kind which you might ordinarily find on Google Maps or Bing, and takes them to an entirely new level. Interestingly enough, the incredibly detailed and uber-high-quality 3D maps C3 Technologies provides are derived from old school missile targeting technologies.

Below is a C3 video demonstrating a 3D fly through of Oslo, Norway. Now imagine having this type of functionality on your phone.

 

It's hardly an understatement to call this a killer feature.

And here’s an equally tantalizing description of what C3's mapping technology is capable of - though it remains to be seen to what extent Apple implements these features into iOS 6.

Based on declassified missile targeting technology from Swedish aerospace giant Saab, C3 maps can be rotated around because each individual pixel has depth information attached to it. 3D data is calculated directly from high-resolution aerial photography, based on the positions and angles of the cameras to give each pixel its geographical position with very high accuracy. C3 maps also sport interior panoramas of points of interest based on HDR imagery, with room navigation, 3D menus and banners, overview maps and other interactive features. There’s also street-level imagery captured using an advanced multiple camera system with overlapping viewing angles to capture the entire surroundings in stereo.

...

Since 2007 when it was spun out of the aerospace and defense company Saab AB, venture-backed C3 has redefined mapping by applying previously classified image processing technology to the development of 3D maps as a platform for new social and commercial applications. The Sweden-based company’s automated software and advanced algorithms enable C3 to rapidly assemble extremely precise 3D models, and seamlessly integrate them with traditional 2D maps, satellite images, street level photography and user generated images, that together are forever changing how people use maps and explore the world.

And here's a video explaining, in part, how the 3D Mapping software works.

  

And so, after a few years of acquisitions and mapping hires, 9to5Mac recently reported that the "headline feature" in iOS 6 will be Apple's "completely in-house maps application."

Following up on that report, John Paczkowski of All Things D added.

Sources describe the new Maps app as a forthcoming tentpole feature of iOS that will, in the words of one, “blow your head off.”

Based on all the above, it stands to reason that Apple's mapping software will be a game changer. It's been about 3 years in the making and all signs are pointing to something big.

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