Google Maps Upgrade Debuts, but Its Future on Apple Devices Remains Unclear

By Robert J. Mullins  |  Posted 2012-06-06

Google Maps Upgrade Debuts, but Its Future on Apple Devices Remains Unclear

SAN FRANCISCO  €”  Google unveiled new features of Google Maps June 6. But during a demonstration of the new Maps features at a media briefing here, a Google executive deflected questions about Google Maps' future on the Apple iOS mobile operating system.

New features that are coming include 3D maps of major cities, a version of Maps that can be used offline and a backpack mounted with a Google Street View camera setup that can take pictures where cars can't go.

However, Brian McClendon, vice president of engineering for Google Maps, declined to confirm multiple reports, including one in The Wall Street Journal, that Apple will no longer install Google Maps natively on Apple iPhones or iPads in favor of Apple's own mapping application. Rumors of this decision were also reported back in May.

"I'm very proud of Google Maps services, and they are available basically on all devices and we will continue to make Google Maps services as widely available as possible," McClendon said.

Scott Ellison, an IDC analyst at the event, said Apple is expected to announce its own mapping app at the Apple Worldwide Developers Conference next week at the Moscone West Convention Center here. He said that while Google Maps would no longer be preinstalled on Apple devices as it is now, it would still be available for download in Apple's App Store.

"Everyone expects them to be booted off of Apple iOS devices," said Ellison. Asked if Apple has the talent and engineering capabilities to match the features of Google Maps, which has been built up over seven years, he replied, €œWe're going to find out next week.€

€œGoogle Maps is one of the areas that has long been a core competency of Google,€ he said. €œIt's unlikely [Apple] has the same number of people devoted to maps as Google because Google's been in it for seven years and you€™ve seen the time they've spent on it.€

Apple has not responded to a request for comment.

Google demonstrated Google Maps' new 3D capability by taking the audience on what looks like a helicopter ride over San Francisco, showing overhead views of City Hall, the Ferry Building, AT&T Park and other landmarks.

In older versions of Google Earth, skyscrapers look flat and it€™s hard to tell the relative height of buildings. But McClendon was vague about how many cities would be available in 3D once the service starts, only promising "several." However, he said that by the end of the year, cities with a combined population of 300 million would be viewable in 3D.

Google Maps will soon be available offline, Rita Chen, a product manager for Google Maps on Mobile, explained. She demonstrated how someone planning a trip to London could download onto their mobile device a map of the city that they could scan, search and zoom in and out of to help them find their way once they arrived.

Google Maps Will Soon Be Available Offline

While the Google Maps app available online provides access to multiple petabytes of maps and other data from around the world, the offline capability is designed to be appropriate to the memory capacity of the device.

€œWe do a lot of optimizations because we do want to be considerate of the amount of space on your device,€ Chen explained. €œWe make €¦ decisions about the level of zoom we save to make sure that you have the amount of data that you need at street level, but also so that we don't overwhelm your device.€

Luc Vincent, engineering director for Google Street View, strapped on a backpack with a camera unit mounted on it so people could walk in places where cars can't go and capture Street View images just as cars, vans, cameras mounted on large three-wheeled bikes, ferry boats and snowmobiles do now.

Street View Trekker, as the contraption is called, is an example of one of three core principles of Google Maps, comprehensiveness, McClendon explained. Besides showing photographic images of more locations by taking the camera on foot, Google is getting more comprehensive maps about the physical world. Today, 75 percent of the world is mapped in Google Maps, up from 37 percent in 2006.

The second core principle is accuracy, even adjusting the images on Google Earth to reflect moving tectonic plates in earthquake-prone areas like California. Google also accepts feedback from end users, one of whom pointed out that at an intersection near their home, left turns are prohibited.

The third core principle is usability, McClendon added, pointing out that Google Maps adds the names of businesses to maps and provides maps that see inside buildings to reveal the floor plan. Someone can begin a map search in the main Google Search window and the program can intuitively know whether someone is searching for a location in Paris, France, or Paris, Texas.

Barbara Moore represents Google Maps for Good, a charity program of Google's that finds ways to use Google Maps for humanitarian, environmental and other efforts of benefit to society. She said Google is partnering with a group called the Halo Trust to use Google Maps to identify minefields in war-torn areas in order to track their removal and illustrate that a former minefield is now safe again. She showed before and after maps of minefields in Afghanistan, Angola and Southeast Asia that are being, or have been, cleared.

McClendon also presented a brief history of Google Maps, which began at a startup called Keyhole where he worked before it was acquired by Google in 2004. Keyhole gained considerable traction after CNN used maps it created as part of its coverage of the invasion of Iraq in 2003.

"That kind of put us on the map, if you will," he said.

eWEEK takes a look at the Google Maps upgrade in a related slide show.


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