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Apple and Google Compete to Build, Maintain More Perfect Digital Mapping System

October 31, 2012 at 12:00 AM EST
In the business of modern mapmaking, there are high stakes for customer satisfaction. When Apple released its iPhone5, it replaced Google Maps with its own mapping technology -- and users were not happy. Spencer Michels reports on the challenges of creating digital maps and how crowdsourcing is making them more accurate.
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SPENCER MICHELS: Getting turn-by-turn directions from your mobile phone has become a part of life for many people who drive.

COMPUTER VOICE: Turn right onto 26th Street.

SPENCER MICHELS: That’s lured more companies into the lucrative business of using digital maps, because there’s money to be made. Until September, almost all those phone maps were supplied by Google.

But when Apple introduced the new iPhone 5, it replaced Google Maps with its own and learned quickly that mapmaking is fraught with peril.

Immediately, users complained they got lost. Some landmarks were out of place, directions were misleading. Apple CEO Tim Cook apologized, but, still, satirists had a field day with the misdirections.

The stakes in the mapping game are high for Apple and others, since a lot of advertising revenue depends on knowing the location of the phone and promoting something nearby, a restaurant or a hotel, to the user.

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Carolina Milanesi, an analyst for Gartner, a technology research firm, says Apple wants to capitalize on that.

CAROLINA MILANESI, Gartner: Apple needs to own maps. They need to own location. The endgame is knowing your location, so that you can monetize from that knowledge, knowing what the consumers do, where they are and what they do where.

SPENCER MICHELS: Google or Apple can deliver paid advertising to users based on their current location or where they intend to go. There’s also plenty of oneupsmanship in the mapmaking business, where pizzazz on the screen is attractive and useful to someone like David Rumsey, a San Francisco map collector with a healthy respect for Apple’s efforts in digital mapmaking.

He runs Apple maps on one iPad and Google Maps on his other.

DAVID RUMSEY, map collector: What’s interesting about the Apple is, we are in 3-D. So as we zoom in, we can change and see the whole scene in three dimensions.

In Google Maps, we can zoom in, of course, and the resolution is just as good. But we don’t see it in 3-D. In order to see it in 3-D, we go to Google Earth. And so Google’s got two applications. Apple has rolled it all into one. As a collector, I would say I want them both.

SPENCER MICHELS: Rumsey acknowledges that making maps always has been difficult, costly and labor-intensive. Google is usually regarded as the leader in the digital world in maps, with everything from sky view to Street View to Google Earth contributing to its displays.

Brian McClendon is vice president of Google Maps.

BRIAN MCCLENDON, Google Maps: We worked very hard. We bought data from as many providers who had already been making maps before and tried to bring them together into a unified single interface.

The U.S. government’s actually a very good source for sort of raw map data, but it doesn’t make a good map on its own. You need to do a lot of work to massage it.

SPENCER MICHELS: The company began making its own maps in 2008. It won’t say how many people it devotes to mapmaking, but indications are it’s in the thousands, including the drivers of the Street View cars that travel the streets in 43 countries, continuously taking photos with nine on-board cameras.

BRIAN MCCLENDON: We also have GPSes on board, and we’re able to combine the imagery plus the GPS to provide precise location information about where the picture was taken, and this helps us actually locate businesses, locate street addresses at a far higher precision than any mapmaker has had before.

SPENCER MICHELS: As the field progresses, the company is gathering more and more data, including pictures from camera-equipped trikes, which roam business sites, university campuses and parks to map trails, pathways and buildings.

The pictures not only contribute to digital maps, but they also provide a detailed image of each street, its businesses, its neighborhood.

Engineering supervisor Michael Weiss-Malik’s job is to integrate it all using a tool called Atlas.

MICHAEL WEISS-MALIK, Google: So, we can turn on, say, data from the U.S. Geological Survey, which are very old paper maps actually that have been scanned in.

The photos come from satellite imagery and from aerial imagery that people collect, so we fly planes to collect aerial imagery. The blue lines are the data that comes from the census.

SPENCER MICHELS: The challenge is keep the maps constantly updated, as roads and buildings change.

MICHAEL WEISS-MALIK: So, the problem with making a map is that it’s never done. The world keeps changing. The great thing that we have is that we’re able to fix it really quickly. We go through and align these by dragging them around on the satellite imagery to make sure that everything looks just right.

SPENCER MICHELS: For mapmakers, responding to change has always been difficult. Collector Rumsey, who recently donated more than 150,000 maps to StanfordUniversity, says maps always have had errors.

DAVID RUMSEY: No map is ever perfect. As you can see from some of these maps, they showed California as an island hundreds of years ago, and it took a long time for that to actually get removed from the maps. In the old maps, it often took 100 years, maybe 200 years.

SPENCER MICHELS: Google and others can react more quickly because of all the input they get. Thousands of times a day, people all over the world tell Google, via the Internet, that roads, or signage, or stores or parks have changed, or that their own neighborhood is poorly represented and the company needs to update its maps.

Google investigates the alleged errors, and tries to correct them. The concept of having people on the ground change the map is called crowd-sourcing.

And it’s the principle pioneered by an Israeli-based mapping company called Waze. That firm, with a small Palo Alto office, uses GPS to track the location of 27 million drivers who have downloaded its app.

Waze depends on that crowd to update its maps, determine traffic congestion and direct users to alternate routes.

DI-ANN EISNOR, Waze: So while you’re getting a free navigation service, you’re also contributing to the community.

SPENCER MICHELS: Waze vice president Di-Ann Eisnor says crowd-sourcing is altering mapmaking.

DI-ANN EISNOR: And the crowd will not only help you get the more accurate information, because you have got millions and millions of people who care enough to make sure that their view of the world is represented, and at the same time, they are making sure that things are updated.

SPENCER MICHELS: Eisnor says Apple didn’t use crowd-sourcing, a strategy many analysts say might have saved it recent embarrassment.

DI-ANN EISNOR: The Apple path was, let’s see what sources are out there already, let’s add our own technology to bring it together, but let’s not actually create our own maps, which is a fine strategy, but it means that they lose control.

SPENCER MICHELS: For its part, Apple has said little publicly, except, of course, for Tim Cook’s letter to his customers apologizing for their frustration and pledging to make the maps work better. Apple declined our request for an interview.

Carolina Milanesi at Gartner Research says that Apple’s mistakes, coming so soon after Steve Jobs death last year, probably won’t have long-term effects on the company.

CAROLINA MILANESI: I think what you have seen in the apology was the reassurance that the core of Apple, the focus on excelling in what they do, is still there. But the endgame, they need to invest time and money.

SPENCER MICHELS: And that’s just what Google, Apple, Waze and a few other players, including Nokia, TomTom, and OpenStreetMap, will all be doing, vying for a bigger niche of the exploding market for maps and advertising.