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There’s a Map for That—Several, Actually

Beyond Apple and Google, a number of companies are hoping to find success with new mapping technology.
June 15, 2012

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.

Los Altos, California-based Hover was initially aimed at fulfilling the defense market’s need for quickly updatable 3-D terrain maps that could be created with nonclassified images, says chief technology officer Ed Lu, a former astronaut who previously worked as the head of Google’s advanced projects group, which oversaw Google Maps, Google Earth, and Google Street View.

Lu says Hover’s technology can take images from various sources—satellite pictures or images taken by cameras mounted on soldiers’ helmets, for example—and process them to produce 3-D models of buildings that can be updated further if more images are added later. For example, if you used your phone to take a photograph of a building from the sidewalk, it could be used to improve the model’s accuracy.

Lu thinks the ability to put street-level images on a map that people can generate on their own will set Hover apart from Google and Apple.

The company currently sells its technology to military customers, and is working on a product for consumers that it hopes to have available as a public beta—likely in the form of a smart-phone app—near the end of the year. “Being able to quickly hover down the street, to use the term, to see what it looks like around the corner, is something people would do if they had an intuitive, fast way of doing it,” says Hover CEO A.J. Altman.

But no matter how compelling the technology, finding (and keeping) a big enough audience for your app is difficult. Despite the proliferation of third-party apps, most still don’t make that much money: Distimo, a market research company in the Netherlands, estimated in May that the average app in Apple’s App Store brings in only $20 a day, or about $7,300 a year.

And it could be even harder for mapping apps. As Ben Bajarin, a principal analyst at Creative Strategies, notes, maps have long been a part of smart phones, and consumers tend to just use whatever comes preloaded on their handset. “Even though there’s innovation, it’s hard to get above the noise,” he says.

One company that has been fairly successful at doing this is Waze, an app that offers navigation and crowdsourced traffic data. The Palo Alto, California-based company is also reportedly contributing data to Apple’s Maps, though the company declined to comment on the issue.

Since launching globally in late 2009, Waze has grown to 18.5 million users, most of whom open it up on their iPhones or Android smart phones, CEO Noam Bardin says. Waze users can contribute to its maps on the Web, editing features like road junctions and allowable turns, and when you use the app, Waze automatically collects data about local traffic conditions (users can also self-report hazards like traffic jams, accidents, or map issues).

The company is hoping to make money through a location-based advertising platform it plans to launch in September that may show users the closest parking spots to their destinations, or ads about businesses like gas stations and coffee shops that are on the way.

This may work for Waze, but Bajarin thinks that mapping companies will have to get very specialized to prosper—perhaps by, say, rolling out a mapping app that helps people find nearby dog parks instead of one that is more broadly concentrated on local search and driving directions.

“As we get more smart devices—phones and tablets—the context around it is important, but the key thing is going to be: Can they differentiate in enough of a way that someone would choose to use them over something else?” he says.

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