What exactly Apple's Maps app is up against in Google Maps

Google's software tools utilize street sign images to confirm and correct street map data. Image via Google/BBC

Apple will route all directions and mapping to its own Maps application, and, man, it’s going to be different.

Apple’s almost certainly going to have some surprises in store for us when it releases whatever it wants to release at its event planned for Wednesday, Sept. 12. One thing we know is that iOS 6, the next version of Apple’s operating system for its mobile devices, will no longer come pre-installed with Google Maps. Apple will instead tie all directions and mapping to its own Maps application, and, man, it’s going to be different.

How different? Gizmodo did the painstaking work of presenting side-by-side screenshots of specific locations. The one-line takeaway is that Apple’s Maps look nicer, but Google’s Maps have much, much more information on just about every level. And that’s just from what you can see on an overhead level. When the Google Maps boss lists the things Google is doing with its colossal computers to improve mapping data, you’re going to do something you thought impossible: feel sorry for Apple.

You really should read the whole BBC interview with Google Maps’ Brian McClendon. But I know how it is on a Monday. So here’s the short list of things you probably didn’t know Google was doing to help people find things and map every inch of our world.

  • Google’s computers are scanning the images taken by its car-mounted Street View cameras to read and identify “street signs, speed limits, addresses, business names, rights of way at road junctions and other information,” and humans are double-checking those identifications. They’re also generally giving Google its own map data to draw from, decreasing its reliance on third-party providers.

  • How much Street View data is there to run through? “Over 20 petabytes” of imagery, and more than five million miles of roads.

  • Drivers using Google’s turn-by-turn Navigation system, or keeping Maps open while they drive, are indeed feeding back to Google. Not just speeds to determine traffic congestions, but street changes. Google will notice if cars are only heading one way down a road, and check to see if the road has become a one-way street since their last data grab.

  • All that data gathering in service of better accuracy and information is known as “Ground Truth.” “Ground Truth 2.0” is likely to involve more wholesale generation of maps and navigation data, such as in India, where many roads and villages are unreliably mapped, if at all.

  • Google plans to continue adding public building interiors—things like train and subway stations, shopping malls, museums, and businesses—but has no intention of mapping home interiors, whether invited or not.

Apple’s coming from a different direction, using satellite imagery and vector mathematics to determine some directional and overhead views. But for knowing exactly how to get to that office that’s in a second floor walk-up above that vaguely named coffee shop, it looks like Google Maps is going to be tough to beat for the time being.

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