iOS 6 and (Sorta) More Open Maps

by Todd

Most people don’t think about maps much until they need them. Yet they’re among the most important cultural information artifacts we can produce, asserting and reinforcing the organization, ownership and use of space. Who wins the wars writes the history, but who makes the maps holds tremendous power.

Last week we saw an expected rundown of how iOS 6 would replace the Google Maps app with Apple’s homebrew solution built on OpenStreetMap. But there was one twist that was unexpected, makes perfect sense, and is worth being excited about.

It started, as most change does, with complaints. Developers with their hands on the iOS6 beta remarked early and often that Apple’s maps are sparse with supplemental data, especially in transit and other infrastructure. That’s important info for a mobile device to have, and Google has invested heavily and done a very good job of providing it.

Fill In the Blank

You might think, well it’s beta, so sure it’s incomplete. But in this case incompleteness is a feature, because Apple isn’t going to bother adding all that stuff. Instead iOS apps will be able to register with the operating system as having geographically pertinent information to share, which will then appear in the new Maps application.

To so broadly embrace open and third-party data is unusual for Apple, so much that it will take a while for the implications to become clear.

Set aside the economic argument and there’s an important philosophical decision taken here. Rather than setting itself up as a centralized gatekeeper on what information can be on a map, Apple has provided a way in for a plurality of sources. If it wasn’t a sore spot for Google to lose its place in iOS, what really must sting is to be so completely disintermediated.

While Google typically makes the information they gather ‘free’ to use, they can and do suddenly put up paywalls that aren’t workable for many businesses. FourSquare’s switch to Open Street Map drew wide commentary about cost savings. Even those who can afford it are concerned enough with a private company being the default source for ostensibly public information to the extent that they, too, are cutting out Google.

Mapping Free-For-All?

It sounds like it a wild frontier, but it’s not entirely. Apple still has final say on what apps appear in the App Store, and by extension the apps that can feed data into their own maps app.

It’s not the most open thing in the world, but by comparison it makes Google look monolithic and a bit undemocratic. Since Apple is making the new maps app the marquee feature of iOS 6, we have to believe they’ve really thought this through and won’t screw it up.

We’re particularly exited about what that could mean for our This Is Our Stop project. Were we to wrap the web app into an iOS app, we could see TIOS conversations popping up on the same app that people use to navigate through the world. That kind of presence is something we could never buy, beg or steal, but we don’t have to as Apple is providing a door just for us to walk through.

To make maps is to assert truths about the world that impact us in many ways. Apple’s switch to OpenStreetMap was a huge stamp of validation for an approach to mapping that draws on many sources to constitute what is available to you in the world. By programmatically opening up the maps app to data from other sources, Apple is further diversifying how our mobile devices inform us about the world around us.