What’s next in mobile mapping and why it matters

The mobile mapping war heated up this week when Apple trotted out iOS 6, which features a new Map application that draws on data from TomTom and OpenStreetMap, among others, but doesn’t employ data from Google Maps. Apple’s move to dump Google Maps in favor of an in-house solution was no surprise, but it highlights the fact that maps have become a crucial battleground for mobile operating system developers and other platform providers. And like some other segments in mobile, that battleground will see an enormous amount of innovation in the coming years.
On-the-go mapping solutions appear to be aligning with three major mobile operating systems: Apple now relies on its own offering, Android uses Google Maps, and Microsoft is reportedly set to replace Bing Maps in Windows 8 with data from Nokia, whose expertise is due largely to the 2007 acquisition of Navteq for $8.1 billion. Apple’s iOS ups the stakes by leveraging impressive new 3D rendering – an offering Google has teased but has yet to release – as well as expanding on familiar features like user reviews and traffic updates.
More innovation on the way
As dazzling as 3D is, though, its importance might pale in comparison to some other advances that will begin to emerge in the near future. Here are a few of the major ones to watch for:

  • Improved GPS technology. Lockheed-Martin plans to start launching a series of advanced GPS satellites next year that will come online in 2014. The next-generation satellites will be able to pinpoint users’ location with three feet – a substantial improvement over the current 10 feet – and will be more effective at reaching users indoors or in other areas where GPS currently struggles.
  • Indoor maps. Google actually added indoor maps to Google Maps late last year, but its library of indoor data remains woefully thin. And a handful of startups like Micello and Point Inside are hoping to give the space a boost as well. We’ve seen very little traction so far, but that will change as GPS becomes more usable indoors (see above) and as alternative location-tracking technologies such as white-space TV spectrum are increasingly used.  Meanwhile, map providers, mobile advertisers and others in the value chain should be expanding their portfolios of indoor data so they’re ready to pounce when those technologies are ready for prime time.
  • Connected cars. As my colleague Kevin Fitchard wrote this week, Apple is elbowing its way into the connected auto industry with new deals to integrate its virtual assistant Siri to cars from nine manufacturers. So Apple Maps and Siri will compete directly against Ford’s onboard navigation system and Sync, its voice-recognition interface. Connected cars present a fantastic opportunity for high-tech, interactive maps that leverage augmented reality to combine the real world with the digital world, but the segment will see plenty of conflict between mobile map providers and the automakers themselves.

What it all means
These and other upcoming advances in the world of mobile maps will open the door to a wide range of ways to engage with mobile users: Retailers in shopping malls or other huge venues will soon have ways of reaching their customers inside the shopping center, for instance, and friend-finding apps will be accurate enough to direct you to an acquaintance on the other side of the street. Meanwhile, the world of connected cars will give rise to an entirely new surfeit of apps that can do everything from tracking mileage to presenting Web-based information on the windshield and in mirrors. Mobile app developers, then, will need to stay abreast of new features and services in the mapping and navigation world to take full advantage of them. And operating system providers will need to embrace those new offerings as quickly and effectively as possible.

Question of the week

How big a role will mapping play in the mobile OS wars?