Apple has posted details on a new full-time position at its Cupertino headquarters for an iPhone Software Engineer who will join its newly created Maps team. On the job description web page, Apple says it wants to “…take Maps to the next level,” and “…rethink how users use Maps and change the way people find things.”
The current Mapping technology in the iPhone relies heavily on Google Maps, but some tech–pundits think that’s a relationship Apple is keen to see come to an end. After all, Apple and Google aren’t exactly on great terms any more. In fact, Apple’s relationship with former best-buddy Google has been demonstrably deteriorating over the last 12 months. So, on the surface at least, it seems Apple is distancing itself further from the search giant both with the creation of its own in-house Mapping team and, back in October, the acquisition of PlaceBase, a rival mapping service to Google Maps.
A little more from the job description highlights how Apple wants to implement creative new functionality in Maps as well as its desire to include its partners in the process.
The iPhone has revolutionized the mobile industry and has changed people’s lives and we want to continue to do so. We want to take Maps to the next level, rethink how users use Maps and change the way people find things. We want to do this in a seamless, highly interactive and enjoyable way. We’ve only just started.
As an engineer on the Maps team, your responsibilities will range from implementing low-level client/server code to implementing high-level user interfaces. You’ll be responsible for implementing new and innovative features, fixing problems and enhancing the performance of Maps. You will work closely with the other engineers on the Maps team, other iPhone and iPod touch teams as well our partners in other companies.
So how might PlaceBase and a new in-house Maps team change how users use Maps on the iPhone?
PlaceBase offers far richer aggregation and visualization of geo-specific datasets than is currently available on Google Maps. For example, imagine you’re planning on buying a house and have a property already in mind. Like Google Maps, PlaceBase can show you the usual aerial views you’re accustomed to seeing but can also display other valuable data, too, such as local crime reports over the last five years, or the demographic distribution of the neighbourhood, or perhaps the latest performance scores of local schools. What’s more, the datasets can be customized.
Some have interpreted the PlaceBase acquisition — and this job posting — as evidence that Apple is taking definitive steps to distance itself from Google. It sounds plausible; Google’s Android OS for mobile phones definitely treads on Apple’s toes, and that whole Voicegate fiasco isn’t over yet. Google’s forays into web browsers and operating systems doesn’t exactly foster amity between the two companies, either.
I suspect Apple wants to bring PlaceBase data visualisation to its already-exemplary Maps application. Yes, it uses Google Maps, but it works. And as it says in the job posting, Apple thinks it’s “…the best mapping program on any mobile platform.” If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, right?
Let’s return to the example from above; imagine you’ve viewed the property but you’re not impressed. Back in the car your real estate agent tells you he has another place in mind he thinks you’ll like. So you reach for your iPhone and fire-up Maps. You do a quick search on the new address and, using a filter you customized earlier, you see the neighbourhood overlaid with color-coded blobs indicating crime rates in that area. You switch to another filter; now you’re looking at the average home-insurance costs for the area, and they’re all way too orange and red for your liking.
There’s no reason this sort of Map “filtering” can’t be monetized, either. The Maps application itself could ship with some basic “fun” filters but offer specialized plug-ins via the iTunes store. Third-party developers would jump at the chance to exploit rich data visualization by plugging-in to a native API, freeing them from the expense and difficulty of building similar functionality from scratch.
While this job posting is specifically for an iPhone developer, there’s no reason to suspect the lessons learned here in the coming months won’t influence other geo-aware software from Apple; iPhoto and iMovie spring to mind, but OS X itself also exploits some (basic) geo-awareness when selecting the appropriate time zone in the Date & Time preference panel.
As social networking services get more geo-savvy (Twitter, Brightkite and FourSquare are obvious examples, but Facebook can’t be far behind) and as mobile devices and laptops start packing-in GPS chips as-standard, it makes sense for Apple to offer a world-class geo-aware range of products that exploit our desire to not only locate ourselves but also discover meaningful, customizable data about our surroundings. That, to me, is the most likely “next level” of Map usage Apple is talking about.