Apple’s Maps Are Still Lost

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Apple, during WWDC last week, delivered some significant updates across various parts of its business. It released, among other things, some 4,000 new APIs (and a new programming language) to developers; a renewed, more aggressive effort in cloud services; and some changes across its mobile and desktop operating systems to make them a lot more integrated with the primary way that we use our computing devices these days — to go online and interact with other services.

But one area of Apple’s business was nearly nowhere to be found at the main event: Maps.

I write “nearly” because it was not an event without any mentions of Maps — Apple gave a quick line to the news that it now offers vector maps and other improvements in China. And there is a feature in iOS 8 that will give venue owners the ability to add more indoor positioning data. But from what we understand this was far from what Apple had intended.

“There were multiple improvements that didn’t make it into iOS8,” a source tells us.

Two years after parting company with Google, Apple is still trying to work out its killer Maps app.

Apple never reveals its plans ahead of announcing them, but a fairly detailed report published prior to the conference from 9to5Mac laid out what it claimed was Apple’s map news.

Key changes included enhanced, “more reliable” data; more points of interest and better labels to make certain locations like airports, highways and parks easier to find; a cleaner maps interface; and public transit directions — that is, providing people with data about nearby buses, subways and trains. Further ahead, the report noted plans to integrate augmented reality features to give people images of what was nearby.

Why didn’t they appear? One tipster says it was a personnel issue: “Many developers left the company, no map improvements planned for iOS 8 release were finished in time. Mostly it was failure of project managers and engineering project managers, tasks were very badly planned, developers had to switch multiple times from project to project.”

It’s a take that is both contested and corroborated by our other source. “I would say that planning, project management and internal politics issues were a much more significant contributor to the failure to complete projects than developers leaving the group,” the source said.

Maps have been a sensitive area in Apple’s software business. It was at the 2012 WWDC that Apple unveiled a new version of its Maps app — a bold move from Apple to cut mighty (and mighty reliable) Google Maps out of the equation by developing its own mapping data.

It turned out to be a disastrous move for the company, one of the rare examples of not delivering a stellar mobile service to the masses. Patchy and unreliable data produced random renderings and bewildered users, and eventually prompted an apology from CEO Tim Cook with the promise that things would get better.

If Apple taking ownership of this was a message to the market that it could and would do the job as well as, say, Google, then Maps was not proving that Apple could do this — not yet, at least. Given that Apple appears to be taking similar steps to bring search closer to its core business, now there will be two areas to watch to see how Apple evolves.

In the last two years, Apple has been on the move to pick up more talent to fill out its navigation and mapping ranks and set things aright. In 2013, five of Apple’s 13 known acquisitions were in location data. It’s acquired companies like BroadMapEmbarkHopStop (these last two specifically focused on transit information) and just last week social search engine for places Spotsetter. And it continues to look to hire talent in the area.

Of course Apple isn’t working amidst a standstill in the market. On the consumer front, Google has launched and continues to enhance a great Google Maps app for iOS, and others like MapBox are pushing hard to position themselves as the most open and developer-friendly of all mapping data providers. And that’s before considering companies like Nokia. Now divested of its handset business, the Finnish company appears to be going all-in on what’s left behind, which includes its substantial mapping and navigation business.

But competitive forces, and the hiccups and delays around last week’s WWDC, won’t stop Cupertino anytime soon.

Maps are important to Apple because, just as search has been at the heart of how people find their way around the internet, maps are the key to how many people use their smartphones. Location data subsequently has become one way that companies creating apps and other services for smartphones may potentially monetise them.

During WWDC Apple noted that there are no less than 680,000 apps in the App Store that use location data — apps covering areas like social, gaming, fitness, shopping, travel and (yes) navigation.