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Why Apple is giving Maps the big reboot

Apple Maps
Apple Maps (Image credit: Rene Ritchie)

This is what Eddy Cue, Apple's senior vice president of services, told Matthew Panzarino of TechCrunch, who scored the exclusive sneak preview of Apple's all-new, next-generation Maps:

"We have been working on trying to create what we hope is going to be the best map app in the world. Taking it to the next step. That is building all of our own map data from the ground up."

From there to here

Once upon a time, Google made Apple an offer it thought they couldn't refuse: Give us access to all your customers' location data and let us serve them ads in Maps, or do without critical features like vector tiles and turn-by-turn navigation. But Apple did refuse. And hard. And that meant the clock was suddenly ticking on Apple Maps. Fast.

Apple had always made the Maps interface on iPhone and had been considering building its own map data for a while. Almost certainly, though, it thought it had more time.

Now it was in a mad dash to rip out Google and replace it in time for the launch of iOS 6. So Apple had to license all the data it could from TomTom, Open Street Map, Yelp, and others.

Because the data were all from different companies, it was all in different formats, and Apple's aggregation, cleansing, and coherency did not go well — and, in many places, it went terribly.

There were flashy new features like Flyover from companies Apple had acquired over the years for its eventual Maps project, but it had no way yet to replace old ones like Street View. And with all the petty fiefdoms involved, it took years to even get Transit back.

As a result, the director in charge of Maps — who previously spearheaded the hugely successful Mobile Safari project — was let go and Tim Cook was compelled to issue an unprecedented apology.

Around the same time, though, Apple began ramping up an entirely new Apple Maps project. Or, perhaps, the Apple Maps project as it should have been and was meant to be.

It's hard to remember now, but Google Maps wasn't created over night or in a vacuum. Back in the day, there were only two real map providers: Tele Atlas, which became TomTom, and Navteq, which became Nokia Here (now owned by a consortium).

Google licensed its maps like everyone else… until it could re-drive and re-map the world in its own image, and do it better than anyone had ever done it before.

Apple had the same lofty aspirations but its definition of better includes fierce protections for user privacy.

Privacy first, last, and always

The data for the new Apple Maps is being collected in three primary ways:

From high-resolution satellite imaging, from specially outfitted Apple Maps vans that have been driving international roadways for years already, and from the billion-odd iPhones that all of us carry every day as we drive, ride, and walk our way through the world.

From the satellites, using computer vision, Apple will be able to add much more detail on everything from parks, to paths, to pools. Right now, Google has trails, and sports facilities Apple doesn't. That's going to change.

From the trucks, Apple is building super high-resolution panoramas and a "point cloud" that maps the world in a full three dimensions.

That lets Maps see under things like tree canopies, which can block satellites, verify addresses, accurately account for lanes, model the real shapes of buildings, match the graphical representation of local street and road signs, and nail points of entry.

While Apple seldomly discusses future products, it also positions them for features like Google-style Street View and Augmented Reality directions, and even pre-fetches data for enhanced and autonomous technologies, including the long-rumored Titan project.

From all the iPhones in all the pockets and hands, Apple will be able to get real-time flow data, which is key to understanding everything from newly opened routes to construction and accidents affecting traffic up-to-the-second. Think Waze but without having to share your personal location data with Google.

That's the biggest part of all this. Through every step and layer and process, the new Apple Maps was architected with privacy in mind. For example, all the Apple Maps van data is encrypted and sanitized to remove faces, license plates, and other individually identifiable information.

Data from iPhones is segmented with the start and end points thrown away and only random, de-identified parts from the mid-points used to "probes" for new routes and traffic. (You can also opt-out of that Settings > Privacy if you really want to.)

At iPhone volume, that means Apple Maps can know how people are navigating without having to know where how any individual person is coming or going. And because Apple's A-series processors are so powerful, it can add any personal context it needs to on-device.

In other words, you don't serve the cloud, the cloud serves you.

Machine Learning meets Human editing

Because Apple believes machine learning by itself is only ever half an answer, Maps will be using human editors, just like App Store and News, but in the hundreds. It'll use them to sanity check and make corrections, which, because Apple will no longer have to loop through a host of other companies, will all be handled much, much, much more quickly.

And yes, search is also being improved so that, you know, searching from something local doesn't prioritize a result three continents away.

What this means for us is better detailed, more accurate, more relevant, and eventually more feature-rich maps that let us stop having to worry about or figure out what they're telling us, and let us enjoy the drive, ride, or walk knowing we'll get exactly where we're going.

Great cartographers ship

Cue told Panzer:

"We don't think there's anybody doing this level of work that we're doing. We haven't announced this. We haven't told anybody about this. It's one of those things that we've been able to keep pretty much a secret. Nobody really knows about it. We're excited to get it out there."

That's an ambitious thing to say — even audacious. Given the history of Apple Maps, I'd much prefer Apple under-promise and over-deliver here. In fact, I'm not going to believe any of this, not even a little, until Apple proves it — until the new Maps ship and we all get a chance to hammer on it. Hard.

That'll start this week in the Bay Area of California, including San Francisco and Cupertino. Over the course of the next year, it'll hit the rest of the U.S., and then keep going internationally.

Rene Ritchie
Contributor

Rene Ritchie is one of the most respected Apple analysts in the business, reaching a combined audience of over 40 million readers a month. His YouTube channel, Vector, has over 90 thousand subscribers and 14 million views and his podcasts, including Debug, have been downloaded over 20 million times. He also regularly co-hosts MacBreak Weekly for the TWiT network and co-hosted CES Live! and Talk Mobile. Based in Montreal, Rene is a former director of product marketing, web developer, and graphic designer. He's authored several books and appeared on numerous television and radio segments to discuss Apple and the technology industry. When not working, he likes to cook, grapple, and spend time with his friends and family.

52 Comments
  • Great news! Have been using Apple maps since the start without looking back. Never had any major issues. Only construction going on that it did not now about but which system would.
  • Also my experience
  • Same for me, no major issues. Funnily enough, I've found Apple Maps is more accurate with postcodes in the UK, so usually if I'm looking for someone's house I'll use Apple Maps, but I find Google Maps has better knowledge of businesses
  • My primary issue with Apple Maps is not the navigation experience...it's the integration of Yelp.
    I think Apple needs to step into that space and create an in-house solution for business/location reviews. I've managed multiple small retail stores, and have had negative experiences with Yelp at each of them.
    Their Sales team uses Mafia-esque tactics, along the lines of: "we'd hate for some bad reviews to show up and you not have anything to do about it", then after refusing to sign up an account is created for us and a couple relatively generic negative reviews appear. This could just be a local bad-apple Sales rep (each store was in the same city), but it's definitely left a bad taste in my mouth. Beyond my dislike for Yelp, I think Apple is missing the change to use Maps to generate community involvement. I'm an active Google Guide, and have received numerous rewards from Google for creating quality reviews and posting lots of photos. If Apple were to tap into that same sort of niche, combined with training and events at their store locations, I think it would be a huge hit and driving factor for Maps usage.
  • Too much overthinking on this. The two features that keep me from switching from Waze:
    1. Quality crowd sourced traffic and necessary rerouting related to this.
    2. Algorithms to get the true fastest route.
  • I'll take what Apple has to offer to not have to be beholden to Google's data gathering demands in Waze. At this point we have no idea how Apple is going to handle traffic, but I'm betting they are competitive with Waze, without the intrusive spying and selling data to marketers.
  • because it sucks. thats all finally seeing more inforamtion accidents and road work. hope it is not to late.
  • I don't think it "sucks", it's weaker in general than the other maps apps but it's still a very functional maps application
  • BTW apple start to tracking people and the best thing is apple maps. we gonna see little by little apple open up and we will be track to get advertising. apple tried it i believe in ios 9 but nobody bought adds.
  • I just feel like it’s a lot of effort and most people don’t care. The only reason for Apple maps to exist is that Apple won’t let you set google maps as default. Between google maps and Waze I’m covered. I would rather Apple spend their resources on improving Seri.
  • I've found Apple Maps to be better in certain cases than Google Maps. Don't assume everyone has the same opinion as you, there's plenty of people using Apple Maps, not to mention the people that use it simply because it's the default app on the phone and if they don't find a problem with it they won't search for another app.
  • I would love to see the statistics on users of each mapping solution. I would be really surprised if it didn’t prove me correct. I did take care not to say that all would agree with me. Just the vast majority. :)
  • There might be more people using Google Maps/Waze, but there's still a large amount of people using Apple Maps, so it makes sense for Apple to work on it.
  • You're a little premature in judgement, considering Apple's reboot is just starting and just in the Bay Area at this point. It's going to spread out and make Google look pretty antiquated, I bet. I already choose to use Apple's maps because of integration with CarPlay and it's not Google. The latter is reason enough.
  • So I have a theory that the screensavers in AppleTV are produced from the data that is going into the new maps format. There has been much discussion about the clarity of these screensavers but if you look carefully, it's actually apparent that they are 3D rendered. They are all of real locations. I think they are evidence of the mapping data Apple have been compiling and they are a preview of what the 3D mode might look like in the upgraded maps. Of course they have probably been pre-rendered, but if they are produced from the mapping data, then they show the potential. With Metal and iPhone X a dynamic live 3D view of the data probably won't be all that much different from the screensavers. In which case the result will be mind blowing! Apple are first implementing using existing map technology but with the new data source. I expect the level of fidelity I am theorising about here will come in the second wave they have indicated will be coming, when the map display engine will be replaced or overhauled.
  • Apple should basically give this a rest. Seriously 😒. Aren't there better new markets to pursue and innovate in? What's the business case for maps in the age of Gmaps and Waze?
  • Just because another product exists doesn't mean there can't be more competition. Apple already does certain things better on Apple Maps than Google Maps or Waze, so it's perfectly understandable that they're working on Apple Maps.
  • Danny, the stalwart Apple maps enthusiast. What specifically does Apple maps do better than Waze of google maps? Maybe I need to give it a try.
  • Public transport is designed on a per-country basis, meaning that Apple provides more detailed and accurate information where available, plus I believe Apple also provides some other information on a per-country basis as well. I've found postcode location in the UK to be more accurate on Apple Maps as opposed to Waze/Google Maps. I find Apple Maps to have the nicest looking maps in terms of aesthetics, but that's more based on your taste. Apple Maps has lane guidance/assist whilst Waze does not, Google Maps has it but I find Apple Maps to be more accurate with the lane guidance. If you haven't given it a try, then why are you making it sound bad? You can't judge something you haven't even tried.
  • Ive tried it many times. When ordering Starbucks, the map integration with the app means its the only way to go. Other than that one specific instance, which would be eliminated with the ability to set a different map app as default, I find it completely inferior for what I use a mapping solution for. Traffic, fastest routes, route updating based on changing traffic and identifying police and other hazards on the road. I dont use transit maps, so that’s wasted on me.
  • Well for your particular use case, maybe Apple Maps isn't ideal, but for many others it is, which goes back to my point of why Apple should continue to work on Apple Maps
  • They absolutely should. My GF is one of those people that has mostly stock apps on her device. It's hard to have a conversation with her about exciting tech because she just doesn't care. Her iPhone is mostly a tool for work and then it has a camera for snapping pics with her friends (I occasionally strike a pose or two as well). For people like her, Apple Maps is seemingly necessary.
  • That is a dismissive attitude that ignores the fact that plenty of tech-savvy people choose Maps for legitimate reasons. Besides, your girlfriend better not read your comment or she might decide to find a more respectful boyfriend.
  • Does Apple Maps not update your route based on changing traffic? Numerous times when traversing the Sacramento, CA area where I live and also the Bay Area while on day trips I've gotten updates letting me know I can save x number of minutes on a new route. It's up to me to choose the option but just tap the large pc screen button and it reroutes me. Is this not the same thing? Police and OTHER hazards? LOL. They are necessarily hazards but I get your point. Waze is unparalleled in that regard.
  • So many things to refute in this logic, but let's just start with you're suggesting that as maps become ever more integral to nearly all aspects of Apple's future, e.g., not just driving, but AR, etc., Apple should decide to backpedal and become reliant on it's primary competitor, Google, which owns Waze, to decide what mapping information Apple gets and under what restrictions? That would be insane.
  • The business case? It's not Google. They respect your privacy. Apple is better at user experiences. The list goes on and on.
  • You keep stating multiple times in the article that the biggest advantage with new Apple Maps is privacy, but you never mention how or what that means. The only example you gave - "...all the Apple Maps van data is encrypted and sanitized to remove faces, license plates, and other individually identifiable information." - is something that google maps has had for a long time now almost since inception I'd want to say. So, this article just sounds like a fluff piece to try to get people excited about apple maps stating that it's better without actually showing how it's better.
  • He did mention it, did you not read? "Data from iPhones is segmented with the start and end points thrown away and only random, de-identified parts from the mid-points used to "probes" for new routes and traffic. (You can also opt-out of that Settings > Privacy if you really want to.) At iPhone volume, that means Apple Maps can know how people are navigating without having to know where how any individual person is coming or going. And because Apple's A-series processors are so powerful, it can add any personal context it needs to on-device. In other words, you don't serve the cloud, the cloud serves you." Besides, privacy has always been a thing with Apple. The maps application is being improved in various ways
  • Most articles written by Renee are defenses of Apple. Justification for whatever they are doing. The privacy card is always an excuse for why Apple services are generally not as good as googles.
  • There's a difference between an excuse and a reason. Apple does AI on their devices whilst Google does it in the cloud, the cloud is more powerful but at the expense of having to send your data to another location.
  • Apple is not cloud free in their AI. Have you ever asked Siri to do something only to be told that there is no connection to the internet?
  • I believe the voice recognition is done offline, but Siri uses internet sources like Wikipedia and Wolfram Alpha to provide responses, Apple doesn't collect this information. Thinks like changing music, or setting a timer are done offline just on the device
  • ""We don't think there's anybody doing this level of work that we're doing. " Just a guess, but I'm assuming google and HERE are working on their maps also.
  • Google and HERE maps have been complacent with their offerings, I haven't seen any dramatic improvements to either of those services in the past couple of years. Apple are doing a big overhaul, and constantly providing services that weren't there before
  • Google just did a major redesign... https://www.androidcentral.com/google-maps-major-redesign-now-rolling-ou...
  • UI redesign, not maps
  • It's not a UI redesign, it's an update to the service itself. https://www.androidcentral.com/whats-new-google-maps-google-io-2018 The point is, if you're going to be critical of non-apple services at least be up to speed about what they've already got going on. I could run a laundry list of improvements and new features that Google's added even just this year, like wheelchair accessibility routes, but you can do your own homework. But be clear, the last thing that can be said about Google is that they're complacent. https://www.androidcentral.com/google-has-added-wheelchair-accessible-ro...
  • Maybe I have overlooked some things, it's just that I've used Google Maps from time to time, and I haven't see anything dramatically different. It still doesn't show speed limits, or speed cameras, street view picture quality seems more or less the same, the maps themselves seem to look more or less the same. Let's just say that improvements which I've been expecting from Google Maps haven't happened.
  • You're a caricature of yourself at this point 😂😂
  • It's true though, and the Google Maps "major redesign" is a UI redesign, which is great in itself, but in terms of the maps themselves they haven't changed.
  • The salt in your comment is quite palpable.
  • It's just my experience, I've used Google Maps/HERE from time to time, and for me personally I've not seen any "big" changes, and ones that I've been expecting from Google Maps, haven't arrived
  • This isn't that important. If it still sucks, people can still use Waze, Google Maps, or whatever other map app they want.
  • Isn't the idea behind this so that it doesn't still "suck", and actually makes more people use Apple Maps as it starts to become a real competitor?
  • That’s...really not the point.
  • Does Apple plan to use crowd-sourcing to keep track of all the panhandling, tent encampments, sidewalk fecal deposits, used needles, and puddles of pee in the windy city? Might come in handy for conventioneers if nothing else.
  • I’m in the 2nd public beta of iOS 12. When first reading about the improvements, and seeing the example being Ft. Bragg in the articles. Before I downloaded 12, I took a screen shot of Ft. Bragg on my iPad Pro 12.9”. I don’t use betas on my phone, just my iPads. After updating to public beta 2, where these changes are supposed to be seen, I went back to Ft. Bragg. Unfortunately, either Apple hasn’t yet implemented any of these changes, or they haven’t been implemented so as to appear on my iPad. Since this is a back end operation, that’s is, it takes place on Apple’s servers, and is down;oared to us, it should have shown up. But Ft. Bragg looks the same now as it’s did before, with none of the enhancements we see in the pic of the before and after on the phones.
  • I wouldn't worry too much, it's very possible that these changes are still rolling out to people. Considering that the changes only appear on iOS 12, that means Apple have both versions of the map on their backend system. They're probably rolling out the new version to the iOS 12 users, and it hasn't reached you yet
  • Did you read what I said? I’m running the 2nd public beta of iOS 12 on my iPad Pro 12.9”. The change was supposed to, according to writers, show up in the 2nd public beta - the one I’m running. This has nothing to do with rollouts. These changes are an Apple backend change, and “roll out” to everyone running software capable of using it, at the same time. So, supposedly, running the 2nd public beta should have me seeing it, and I don’t. I’m wondering if Apple delayed the rollout, or whether it’s only visible to iPhone users right now. I plan to check every few days.
  • I assumed that, given iOS 12 beta 1 and before users will see the "old" version of the map, this means that on Apple's backend system they have both versions, otherwise either everyone regardless of OS would see the new or old one, since the map graphics are pulled from the servers. Hence why I assumed that possibly Apple was rolling it out to users on the second beta, but in reality I have no idea how they're pushing this to users, I'm only assuming as to try and figure out why you haven't got the new map. Either way, I doubt it's any fault on your end, which is the main thing I was getting at.
  • Ehh, while I will admit that Apple Maps came through for Transit when I was overseas, when it comes to driving, I’ll stick to Waze which sucks the least of the 3. Hey, good luck though Apple, compared to the ****show that was maps on iOS 6, it’s definitely improved since then. But in reality GPS systems in my experiences are just digital address lookups.
  • I think they're more than digital address lookups, I find the lane guidance feature incredibly useful, as well as being able to see the speed limit, since some places in the UK at least have the speed limit signs very far and few, so they can be easy to miss. Then there's extras that things like Waze has, where you're warned of accidents or speed cameras, all these features make for a much more comfortable driving experience.