Thursday 15 March 2012

Apple's maps

The discovery last week that Apple seems to have used some tiles from Open Street Map (OSM) in its new iOS version of the iPhoto application has provoked speculation about yet another company making the switch to OSM. However, it seems that the data used is from some time ago, and even contained errors which have since been corrected in OSM. One great advantage of community sourced mapping is that errors get detected and corrected. The data has also been used with no attribution of its source, a condition of using OSM data.

None of this looks like a corporate decision to switch to open mapping data. Apple make some nice devices, I'm a happy user of two of them, but they are a long way from being leaders when it comes to open software and data. They prefer to make their customers dependent on their own products and services. To this end they have made acquisitions in recent years of companies involved in provision of mapping services. All the signs are that Apple are sourcing data from multiple sources and in any case the incompleteness of OSM, particularly in the USA, makes it still unsuitable as the only product for truly global data.

At the same time it's not comfortable for Apple to depend too much on Google. The two companies are competitors and at the moment the attempts by Apple to put as many obstacles in the path of Android as they can are making that competition particularly intense. Which is not to say that they don't do business with each other. Google pays Apple a lot of money to be the default search engine on Apple devices (an issue currently under investigation by regulators). In return Apple has been heavily reliant on Google's advantage in the mapping market. 

Apple is not noted for being very communicative about some of its decisions, the controversy over its collection of location data from smartphone users demonstrated that. So we are left guessing about their future direction for mapping services, but the inclusion of OSM data is still another indication of how much progress the open map has made.

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