Apple’s Mapping Battle With Google Hits The Streets

Apple’s street fight with Google just became official: The iPhone maker confirmed that it’s building its own mapping database, complete with Street View-style imagery, through a new page on its website

“Apple is driving vehicles around the world to collect data which will be used to improve Apple Maps,” the site reads. “Some of this data will be published in future Apple Maps updates.” 

See also: Here’s What’s New In iOS 9

The revelation solves the mystery of the unmarked Apple minivans spotted around the Bay Area in February. Rumors were rife that the Cupertino, Calif. company was working on either self-driving or electric cars. But 9to5Mac nailed it, when the site revealed that the camera-equipped vehicles were, in fact, collecting data for Apple’s homegrown maps database—though it’s not clear yet whether the company will pursue a variation of Street View that blends it with the existing 3D “flyover” view, as the blog asserted. 

Either way, Apple apparently wants to reduce its heavy reliance on third-party services and data collected from external sources. The Maps app’s notorious inaccuracies have often stemmed from problems aggregating all this data. 

Now the tech giant wants to take more control over Maps as it ratchets up the stakes in its rivalry with Google.

Mapping Wars

Changes are coming to Maps in iOS 9.

Since launching its native Maps app in 2012, replacing Google Maps as the default mapping application on iPhones and iPads, Apple has been busy acquiring smaller companies to bolster its database of local businesses and transportation links. Meanwhile, it has relied on data from TomTom to flesh out its mapping and navigation information. 

Yet, after working steadily to banish the infamous errors and glitches that riddled the app in its premiere year, the general perception is that it still lags behind Google. Three years in, and public transit information is only just arriving with iOS 9. Apple Maps also has no Web interface and, of course, no presence on Android. 

In ComScore figures released last year, Google Maps had a 46.2 percent reach among iOS and Android users in the US, with Apple Maps down on 27.5 percent. With maps so central to the mobile platform, Apple knows it has to do better. 

Right now we don’t know much about the data Apple is collecting, but it promises to “blur faces and license plates on collected images,” which sounds like a Street View-style feature will be in the mix. The likelihood is that end users won’t notice much difference in the actual app. 

The company doesn’t seem in much of a rush, though: It lists just 14 locations in the United States, plus a handful of spots in England and Ireland, where its vans will be visiting through June. 

It might want to get a few more vans out on the road—and on the ski slopes—if it’s serious about catching up to Google. 

Screenshots by ReadWrite