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Comment: I understand why Apple wanted its own maps, but it fails the laser focus test

A Counterpoint blog post today questions whether the planned ‘massive overhaul’ of Apple Maps is too little, too late.

This brings me to my key point — that map making, map data collection and keeping maps up-to-date, is an expensive and unending task […]

Apple will have to pour in hundreds of millions of dollars every year to collect, parse and integrate maps, transit and traffic data. Further, having Apple Maps cars equipped with expensive LiDAR, 360 cameras gear and drive hundreds of thousands of miles globally will still take Apple years to perfect the maps at a global scale […]

In summary, it could be a little too late for Apple to build maps content from the ground-up.

For a company which boasts of saying no a thousand times for every time it says yes, Apple Maps always seemed like a strange project to green-light, but I think there were a couple of reasons for it …

First, Apple has always prioritised privacy. I suspect it was never particularly comfortable pushing Google Maps as the mapping app on iPhones for that reason.

Google Maps captures a lot of data. It tracks the routes you take, to improve its navigation recommendations. It tracks the time it takes you to travel between particular points, to capture live data on traffic conditions. It tracks the places you visit, and when you visit them, to offer proactive suggestions on when you might need to leave. It notes the types of businesses you visit, to suggest others that might interest you.

In fact, Google goes as far as to create a complete timeline of where you have been when. If you use Google Maps (or have ever done so), you can view yours here.

You can change the defaults to do things like switch off location history, but by default, it’s on.

Apple Maps works very differently, as Eddy Cue recently explained.

“We specifically don’t collect data, even from point A to point B,” notes Cue. “We collect data — when we do it —in an anonymous fashion, in subsections of the whole, so we couldn’t even say that there is a person that went from point A to point B.”

So Apple has no idea who went where or when.

Second, if you’re planning to develop a self-driving car, then Apple Maps makes perfect sense. Partly because you want extremely detailed mapping data, and partly because development of an autonomous car requires racking up huge mileages in camera-equipped cars, so you might as well collect that data at the same time.

But all the signs point to Apple having massively scaled-back its automotive ambitions. It now seems, at best, interested in helping develop software which can be used by other manufacturers. And that’s not a great reason to invest hundreds of millions of dollars a year creating your own mapping data.

The privacy argument still stands, but to me fails Apple’s famed ‘laser focus’ test. When Apple says no to so many things in order to focus on its core products, I don’t see how investing so much money and effort on a multi-year mapping product makes any sense. All users need is the link to the toggle to switch off location history if they don’t want Google to use the feature.

Cue gave plenty of reasons for wanting accurate mapping data, but few reasons why Apple should be the company creating it. Both Google and HERE are already experts at this stuff. As the Counterpoint piece argues, if Apple didn’t want to partner with Google, it could have done so with HERE – agreeing all the privacy protections it wanted.

And it’s not like Apple spent four plus years collecting all the data so now it might as well use it. Cue admits that the company is starting from scratch, and all we’re likely to see anytime soon is better mapping for the Bay area of California – Apple’s own back yard.

If someone brought the Apple Maps concept to Tim Cook today, as a brand new product idea, I believe he’d say no. I honestly think he should do that anyway, not double-down on investment in what is now a peripheral project.

What’s your view? Do you use Apple Maps or Google Maps or something else? Do you think Apple Maps passes the ‘laser focus’ test? Please take our poll and share your thoughts in the comments.

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Avatar for Ben Lovejoy Ben Lovejoy

Ben Lovejoy is a British technology writer and EU Editor for 9to5Mac. He’s known for his op-eds and diary pieces, exploring his experience of Apple products over time, for a more rounded review. He also writes fiction, with two technothriller novels, a couple of SF shorts and a rom-com!

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