Apple’s new iOS Maps: the risk factors

Scott Forstall demonstrates Flyover, Apple's new 3D maps feature.

Scott Forstall demonstrates Flyover, Apple’s new 3D maps feature that is already drawing privacy critiques from elected officials.

Apple’s decision to develop its own maps app for its mobile devices is in many ways the prototypical Apple move. When a particular piece of software or a technology is critical to the performance or usability of an Apple product, Apple wants to have complete control over it. And that’s very true here: directions, location-based services and mapping are critical tools for iPhone and iPad users as well as the many third-party apps that run on those devices.

Apple hasn’t rushed into this decision — it’s taken years to acquire the relevant companies and sign the appropriate licensing agreements — and it does seem like it was thoughtful about the implementation of this new software. As developers told me last week, they think Apple has made it really easy on them from a coding perspective to switch from Google to Apple’s own maps for their apps.

But as fallout from the announcement of the move continues, it’s apparent that the normally conservative company has opened itself up to some significant potential risks by taking on the responsibility of creating and maintaining a mapping solution. Here’s a roundup of the potential dangers.

Change for change’s sake. Google Maps was not broken. Moving away from it was a change Apple made mostly for competitive reasons. (Unless you consider Google holding back turn-by-turn directions as a feature for its own Android software, which for some was a major hole in iOS functionality.) The problem with changing something that isn’t broken is you need to offer something that’s noticeably better as a replacement. The new look and functionality of the  new maps app will be jarring to some people. People don’t like change and they do like convenience, so if they’re going to be forced to learn something new — even something as simple as a new maps app — it has to be immediately clear that the change was worth it. This is perhaps a small risk, given Apple’s record with software design, but it is a risk nonetheless.

To be fair, Apple does have a history of making far more dramatic and riskier product changes — like making a computer without a floppy drive, or without an optical disc drive altogether. Customers have adapted to these changes — the optical drive-less MacBook Air is one of the Apple’s best-selling laptops now. But those were changes to new products that customers had the choice of buying, not changes to products people already own. And more importantly, the payoff you get for that change — a thinner, lighter computer — is clear and welcome.

iOS Maps’ turn-by-turn directions.

Privacy concerns. The new 3D maps Apple demonstrated with its Flyover feature are visually stunning. But they’re already eliciting concern over how Apple is gathering those images. On Monday New York Senator Charles Schumer sent a letter to Apple and Google — the details of which have been posted on his website — conveying his alarm over the tactics used to capture images for their respective 3D maps products. He says their “plans to use military-grade spy planes to map communities and publish images could cause unprecedented invasion of privacy.” Specifically he’s upset that the cameras can see images in detail “as small as four inches – enough to see through windows in homes, capture individuals in their backyards, and reveal details of sensitive security.” He wants to give property owners the right to opt out of being photographed and has called for blurring out all images of individuals.

This sort of attention from elected officials is pretty much the norm for Google, which has had to deal with concerns in many countries over its Google Street View cameras. Apple has had its share of privacy brouhahas, but the cameras-in-public-places thing hasn’t been part of it. Schumer’s letter is likely just the beginning of privacy concerns over 3D mapping for Apple.

The accuracy of turn-by-turn directions. Speaking of lawsuits, another thing Google’s Maps product has opened it up to over the years is lawsuits over faulty or inaccurate turn-by-turn directions. Legitimate or not — you don’t have to do what Google or Apple’s maps tell you — it’s another legal risk Apple is taking by offering these in its new product. It’s something the company has long known about too — when Apple first added GPS to the iPhone with the iPhone 3G, it warned against using it for turn-by-turn directions because of unnamed “complicated issues.”

The transit apps question. Apple VP of iOS Scott Forstall said very briefly at WWDC last week that Apple’s Maps app will feature different local transit apps when users ask for bus, train, metro or other public transportation directions. At first I liked the idea that Apple was allowing the relevant local transit apps to be featured. But as plenty of others have pointed out since, it appears that these apps will be featured because Apple is unable or unwilling to integrate transit directions within its own app. The risk here is the unknown: iOS 6 is available just as a preview for developers right now, and it’s incomplete, so we don’t know how the final version will work. How smoothly will these third-party apps will be integrated, and will it be an inconvenience for users? That’s the big question.

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