Map time: Hover, a 3-D-focused map company that’s still in stealth mode, can gather pictures from different sources and combine them to produce models of buildings that can be updated later on if more images are added.
Apple’s announcement that its own mapping app will be added to the next version of its mobile software sounded like a punch in the gut for Google Maps, which has been a constant presence on the iPhone since the gadget first launched in 2007.
Apple’s senior vice president of iOS software, Scott Forstall, gave a glimpse of the Maps app on Monday at the company’s annual Worldwide Developers Conference in San Francisco. Forstall showed off maps of countries around the globe, as well as Flyover, a feature that uses images captured by planes and helicopters to build crisp, 3-D views of buildings like the Transamerica Pyramid in San Francisco and the Sydney Opera House in Australia.
The unveiling was anticipated; Google even seemed to preëmpt it by showing off several upcoming Google Maps innovations at a press event the week before. These included similar enhancements to its own 3-D mapping technology. Apple’s shift also makes plenty of sense, as it will give the company more power over its ever-expanding mobile platform as Google’s Android ecosystem proliferates on mobile devices.
But even as it ramps up the competition between the tech titans, Apple’s move into maps also serves as a reminder to consumers that these aren’t the only companies out there working on mobile mapping apps.
There are a number of others, including directions and traffic app Waze and 3-D city mapping app UpNext. Chances are that Google Maps and Apple’s forthcoming Maps will be the most popular, but with smart phone and tablet adoption growing at a rapid clip, and continuous improvements in the processing power and memory capacities of mobile devices, and access to high-speed wireless networks, these companies are betting there’s some screen space for them, too.
UpNext believes 3-D maps are a good way to gain consumer attention. The company offers an iPhone and an iPad app that let users browse the entire U.S., with large swaths of 25 different cities viewable in three dimensions. Unlike Apple’s and Google’s latest offerings, it’s a somewhat cartoony view, but that’s the point: Raj Advani, UpNext cofounder and chief engineer, says he wanted to make map-viewing more like playing a video game.
Apple and Google “want to make the whole world 3-D and hyper-realistic,” Advani says. “We want to take a more cinematic approach than that, and just make the map better at displaying the information the user wants.”
Like several of its competitors, UpNext uses vector-based mapping, which means that it downloads data that is then used to draw the map on a mobile device, which makes zooming, panning, and scrolling faster. In practice, this means that checking out UpNext in San Francisco felt kind of like immersing myself in a digital version of my city, where I can fly around overhead, change directions, or swoop in to get a closer look at buildings. An “Explore” tab fades buildings and highlights nearby businesses, and you can search for specific businesses or get driving directions, too. This kind of “dynamic cartography,” as Advani calls it, is what UpNext is focused on, he says.
Eventually, the company hopes to make money by offering an API that lets people create customized maps for their own apps, but for now it’s concentrating on growing its user base. So far, so good: Advani says users have downloaded nearly a million copies of UpNext’s various apps thus far (including an older, more limited app).
UpNext isn’t the only one working the 3-D angle. Hover, another 3-D-focused map company that’s still in stealth mode, is also hoping to make a name for itself in the mobile market.