Apple and their maps

March 08 2012 by Justin Miller

The big news out of yesterday’s new iPad launch came from a footnote in the iPhoto for iOS presentation: Apple is using their own technology and servers for the maps in iPhoto’s prominent photo journals. However, as confirmed firsthand by Daring Fireball and as evidenced by yesterday’s iOS 5.1 release, the default maps application, Maps.app, still uses Google’s map tiles and data.

Early digging

It was quick work to find the source of the new iPhoto tiles - a sample tile URL looks like:

http://gsp2.apple.com/tile?api=1&style=slideshow&layers=default&lang=de_DE&z=14…

As a result, Iván Sánchez Ortega quickly prototyped a comparison of OpenStreetMap and Apple tiles, and this demo compares Apple, Google, and OpenStreetMap tile sources.

Apple’s sourcing

Currently there is speculation that Apple is using OpenStreetMap data for coverage outside of the United States, and the US Census’s TIGER data within. If this is the case, it’s a strong vote for the use of OpenStreetMap data in mission-critical scenarios, much like foursquare’s recent move.

OpenStreetMap contributors have found telling similarities between Apple’s maps and OpenStreetMap. Here are some examples from Germany, Italy and Austria. However, the data Apple may be using here seems to be from around 2010, as some people have commented on Twitter or have hypothesized based on reverse engineering.

Neither Apple’s website nor the legal terms of the iPhoto application include mention of OpenStreetMap data though, leaving Apple’s data sources officially unconfirmed.

Example of a typo fixed by user IrlJidel in 2009 that is showing up on Apple’s maps (see history and map).

What’s next

Apple has increasingly moved geospatial APIs onto its own systems and data. iOS 5 introduced a geocoding API that replaced Google’s, with the main advantages of adding multilingual support and bi-directional lookups. Internalizing services like this makes a lot of sense for Apple because it enriches their offerings to developers, allowing them to make more powerful apps more easily. And it’s clear that Apple has room to improve upon these maps - as is their typical modus operandi: iterate and polish - updating the source material freshness, as well as tackling things like retina support, which was a large part of the iPad introduction event. It’s an exciting development in modern mapping.

Screenshots of Apple’s new maps.

We’ll all be watching with great interest as Apple’s geographic offerings continue to mature. In the meantime, if you need more customization than Apple’s Google-based MapKit can provide, we’ve been developing the MapBox stack in that space for a couple of years now and are continuing down that path with our latest projects like Mapresent, a custom geographic presentation tool for the iPad. And if you are looking to make your own maps with OpenStreetMap data, check out AJ’s recent post on creating a custom map of your city in 30 minutes with TileMill and OpenStreetMap.

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