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Apple Maps Still Playing Catch Up to Google

While Google gets ready to launch an offline version of Maps, Apple Maps is making some advances of its own. In fact, swarms of Apple vans have been spotted driving around for some time now—but only recently has their mission been revealed.

Mystery Fleet

The Apple vans have been out on the roads since at least February. For anyone who remembers the early days of Google street view, these vans will look quite familiar: each one is equipped with a rack of multi-directional cameras on the roof. But it was hard to say for sure that the vans were working on an Apple Maps “street view,” for a variety of reasons:

  • Street by street photographic data is useful for a variety of other purposes.
  • The camera rigs are different from those used by other mapping services. Typically, “street view” style imagery is captured by a 360-degree rig elevated on a pole above the van.
  • The vans couldn’t even be definitively traced to Apple, and the company wouldn’t confirm their existence.

That left people scratching their heads and coming up with lots of conjecture. One exciting theory among the tech community was that the vans weren’t map-related at all. Instead, they were hoped to be gathering data to lay the foundation of self-driving cars. Like most Americans, I have to admit that I’d rather keep control of my vehicle firmly in my own hands—but if any company is going to do a good job of creating a “smart car,” it would definitely be Apple.

The Revelation

Now we need speculate no longer. Apparently, internal sources have revealed the purpose of the vans. Sadly (though not surprisingly) it has nothing to do with robot automobiles.

Instead the sources say the vans are firmly map related. They’re gathering street level data—which is useful for a lot more than just 3D street views.

A focus of the vans’ mission is to get clear photographs of local businesses. These photos help Apple check that the location on the map corresponds to the real world locale, reducing errors and improving turn by turn directions. Photos of street addresses on houses can do the same thing.

The business photos will also replace Yelp photos in Apple Maps’ local business data. This is a sword that cuts both ways: it will provide imagery for businesses that haven’t claimed their Yelp listing, but it also means that a company’s professional photos on Yelp will get that much less exposure.

Ultimately, all of these changes are part of a single mission: to reduce Apple’s reliance on third party mapping services for this kind of data. (Currently, Apple uses TomTom.)

Will the fresh data improve Apple Maps? Almost certainly. But it’s important to remember that this still puts Apple way behind in the Map Wars. Apple is starting today what Google did back in the oughts, and while Apple runs to play catch up Google is leaping even further ahead. It will take more than a fleet of camera vans to change that.