The Null Device

Apple embraces OpenStreetMap

In other recent news, Apple launched the latest gadget yesterday, to much-anticipated adulation. There were few surprises in the overt details: the retina display showed up as everyone predicted, and the CPU and camera were also bumped up; oh, and it does LTE, which explains the enlarged battery.

The launch included a presentation demonstrating the new iPad and some new apps for it. Buried within the demonstration of a photo editing package was a bombshell: a fragment of a screen, seen briefly, showed a street map which looked distinctly unlike Google Maps (the mapping system used by iOS since the first iPhone), suggesting that Apple are about to move away from Google Maps to a different platform. Such a move wasn't entirely unanticipated; relations between Apple and Google have been icy recently, so it was only a matter of time until Apple moved to a different mapping system; Apple's acquisition of several mapping-related companies, which promptly disappeared beyond the Cupertino event horizon, suggested that Apple would roll its own system. The only questions were when and what form would it take.

More clues emerged when the iPhoto app became available: (examination of internet traffic from iPhoto revealed that the map tiles were being loaded from a server named gsp2.apple.com, and soon, someone rigged up an unofficial web-based map viewer using the tiles. Finally, it was revealed that Apple are using data from OpenStreetMap for their maps, though rolling their own tiles. The service seems to be in its early stages so far; the resolution stops a few zoom levels short of street-map level and the data they're using is based on a slightly old snapshot of OpenStreetMap, though it's still pretty big news.

Apple's move to OpenStreetMap is the latest in a wave of defections from the once-ubiquitous Google Maps (FourSquare moved a few weeks ago and other sites have been moving to it, propelled by the carrot of OpenStreetMap's high-quality (and rich) data set and the stick of Google moving more aggressively to monetise their maps. As for other mapping services, they don't seem to be getting much of the action; Microsoft's Bing has Facebook, probably because Microsoft own 1% of Facebook, and Flickr still uses Yahoo!'s own mapping system. However, neither looks set to steal the crown from Google, as there isn't likely to be a crown to steal soon.

It looks like online geodata may have approached the tipping point that electronic encyclopædias reached with Wikipedia and UNIX on commodity hardware (remember commercial PC UNIX?) reached with Linux: the point beyond which it makes no economic or business sense to go it alone, and where proprietary products are an evolutionary dead end.

It'll be interesting what the UK's Ordnance Survey, for long the dog in the manger of geodata, will make of the new shifting environment it finds itself in.

There are 2 comments on "Apple embraces OpenStreetMap":

Posted by: Jimbob Tue Mar 13 02:50:34 2012

The web viewer shows that at medium zoom level (Victoria and Tasmania fit on the screen), some place east of Melbourne called "Casey" merits a label, but Hobart, and indeed Tasmania, do not, in Apple's estimation... slightly offended.

Posted by: acb Tue Mar 13 03:07:19 2012

Yes, the data's a bit wonky at the moment, which is probably why it's not being used for anything major yet. I expect Apple will do a lot of tweaking to it in the near future.

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