DaMoon

Mar 08 2012

Apple and Maps - more than just tiles

During Apple’s demo of iPhoto yesterday, the simple map feature shown at the end has resulted in a lot of speculation about Apple’s future mapping product. 

MG Siegler

Daring Fireball

512 Pixels

Most of the speculation was due to the fact that Apple was no longer using Google Map tiles but instead was using Open Street Map data as the tile base.

Welcome, Apple! - OpenStreetMap Foundation

When thinking about a mapping platform it is important to recognize that data/tiles are just one piece of the puzzle and in many respect the easiest first step.  From a high level here are the component needed to build an end to end mapping solution.

Data/Tiles/Vectors

Map data comes from a variety of sources.  On one end of the spectrum is Navteq, which provides comprehensive data via license and on the other end is Open Street Map, which is free and maintained by its community.

Basically, map data comes in the form of raw geodata or tilesets.  Tiles are pre-rendered map images based on different zoom levels.  You find this in many mapping products.  It is the quickest and easiest way to start building a map. 

Raw geodata is the instructions for how to make a map and allows for more customization and flexibility.  Once the raw data is manipulated, it can then be processed as tiles or vectors.  Tiles, as mentioned before, are images of the map.  Vectors utilize client side renderers to “draw” the map on your device.  Oftentimes the data footprint is smaller (ideal for mobile) and can result in more dynamic maps.  Google Maps 5 for Android and our own mapping product, UpNext HD Maps, uses vector based mapping.

Some basic changes you can make to geodata to customize your “look” are road colors, base color, fonts, labels, park colors, etc.  In the case of iPhoto, it appears that Apple is using the raw Open Street Map data to create their own stylized tileset.  In the end, the creation of your own geo dataset is the first step in building your own map.

Map Renderer

The map renderer is how mapping products differentiate themselves.  Users want to navigate quickly and easily on a map.  A slow, choppy renderer makes for a poor experience regardless of how pretty your map looks.  Conversely, a fast, smooth and seamless map renderer can make people overlook drab cartography.

(This is where we, UpNext, truly excel and have pushed the boundaries of mapping.  Give our map renderer at try -> UpNext HD Maps or watch this demo video)

Based on the brief map demo for iPhoto, it appears that Apple has a solid map renderer as evidenced by the smooth pinch and zoom navigation.

Venue Data and Search

The primary purpose of a map is to help people locate venues.  Whether you are looking for an address, shop, home, intersection or country, all of these results need to be accurate and comprehensive.

You can buy/license venue data from various sources or you can try and aggregate through crawlers and API’s.  Getting the initial dataset is relatively simple but keeping your data fresh, current and updated is a much larger task.

Similarly, geo search is a difficult problem to solve.  If a user types in Hollywood are they referring to Hollywood, CA or Hollywood, FL or a bar in their neighborhood called Hollywood or Hollywood St in Anytown, USA?  And this is one of the simpler problems to solve.

Let’s be honest, Google is the best at this.  They have nearly all venue data through their continuous crawling of the web. in addition to all the companies who use Google Maps API contributing back to their venue database.  Also, they are pretty good at this search thing.

Bell and Whistles

Once you get the above done, you got a basic map.  Then you need to start thinking about some the following…

- Enhanced Datasets: 3D data, satellite, streetview

- Navigation

- Transit

- API/Developer Tools

- Backend Scaling

- Localization

- Lots more

Apple’s move away from Google Maps is interesting, but I caution people from extrapolating too much from the map product shown in iPhoto.  Perhaps Apple balked at paying Google for map data when it was just a side feature of iPhoto. Or maybe Apple wanted an aesthetic more inline with their iPhoto design framework.  Creating a new tileset is the simplest step in building a map platform. 

When users envision Apple Maps, I believe they are expecting more than just different looking tiles.  While this is definitely a step towards independence from Google Maps, building a quality mapping platform has many more challenges than just the data.

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