In its explanation of how and why it collects anonymized location data from iPhones, Apple provided a rare glimpse into its future plans. The company revealed it’s collecting traffic data from devices, too, in order to build “an improved traffic service” for iPhone users “in the next couple of years.” The service would be crowd-sourced, and presumably more accurate than existing iPhone Maps traffic information.
Both location data gathering and traffic information collection seem to be in service of improving Apple’s built-in Maps app and on-device location services. Apple took over the management of Maps location databases in June 2010. Devices running iPhone OS 1.1.3 to 3.1 had (and still do) rely on Skyhook Wireless’ databases of Wi-Fi and cellular tower locations. Apple also acquired mapping companies Placebase and Poly9 last year, and posted job ads looking for individuals to “take Maps to the next level” in 2009, and to “radically improve how people interact with maps and location-based services” just last month.
Apple revealed last year in its letter to Congressmen Ed Markey (D-Mass.) and Joe Barton (R-Tex.) that it “used [location] data to analyze traffic patterns and density,” so presumably that’s the same thing it’s doing in order to improve its traffic service. The Maps app currently has a traffic layer that can be enabled and disabled, but the info appears to currently be supplied by Google, since it matches traffic pattens displayed on the web-based version of Google Maps. Apple seems to be intent on either supplementing that information, or replacing the Google-sourced data with its own.
Some are speculating this means Apple is keen to introduce turn-by-turn navigation to the onboard iOS Maps app, and that’s a definite possibility. But since Apple only claims “an improved traffic service” as part of its plans, it’s not the only logical conclusion one can draw. Apple has been steadily decreasing its reliance on outside service providers (and even components, thanks to its in-house designed A4 and A5 mobile chips), and a new traffic service might just be that, and not representative of any attempt to leapfrog into navigation.
Apple’s assertion that any improved service will come “in the next couple of years” hints at the long development tail it has for new products and software offerings. The Mac-maker would never release a product to market that pales in comparison to what it’s replacing, and that’s no less true of the iOS Maps app. Until it can ensure a better user experience itself than is provided by Google, it’ll stick with the Mountain View, Calif.-sourced option, because unlike its competitors, Apple seldom, if ever, rushes anything to market.