Does Apple Have a Big Data Problem?

A couple hundred years ago, all you needed to make a good map was some paper and ink, and a lot of explorers willing to risk life and limb.

The recent controversy over the iOS 6 Maps app highlights a particular problem for Apple: forced to build its own mapping platform from scratch, the company could be finding itself at a Big Data deficit with Google.

“Google has it; Apple is scrambling to catch up,” Dave Einstein wrote in an Oct. 3 posting on Forbes.

Google, of course, has spent years amassing loads of geographical data, backed by extensive IT infrastructure and thousands of employees. Nor is it the only tech company with a strong maps division: as detailed by The Atlantic’s Alexis Magrigal, Nokia has also made substantial investments in digital mapping technology, including the $8 billion purchase of Navteq and a steady stream of GPS data from FedEx and UPS.

“We get over 12 billion probe data points per month coming into the organization,” Cliff Fox, Nokia’s senior vice president of Location Content, told Magrigal. “We get probe data not only from commercial vehicles like FedEx and UPS trucks, but we also get it from consumers through navigation applications.”

Like Google, Nokia also maintains a set of modified vehicles capable of recording data about the routes they drive. While Google’s Street View cars have sparked pushback from privacy advocates and government regulators, it’s undeniable that their data has contributed mightily to Google’s mapping goals.

In its ramp-up to releasing a proprietary mapping app, Apple reportedly snatched up a number of independent mapping firms. Back in late 2011, the blog 9to5Mac posted that Apple had acquired C3 Technologies, a builder of 3D maps; the previous year, it had bought Canadian mapping firm Poly9.

Despite those buys, which presumably came with a load of geographic information, Apple’s iOS 6 app suffers from the bugs one would associate with newborn mapping software, including inaccurate roads and disappearing landmarks. That hasn’t stopped more than 100 million iOS users from downloading iOS 6 within a few days of its release, but the errors did lead Apple CEO Tim Cook to issue a rather contrite apology.

“At Apple, we strive to make world-class products that deliver the best experience possible to our customers,” Cook wrote in a letter published on the company’s Website. “With the launch of our new Maps last week, we fell short on this commitment. We are extremely sorry for the frustration this has caused our customers and we are doing everything we can to make Maps better.”

Einstein also insists that Google’s years of data collection give it an advantage in another realm, voice search: “Google’s game changer used massive databases to store everything users said while voice-searching on their Android phones. Suddenly speech recognition became a data-driven, cloud service that trained itself.”

He terms Apple’s own speech efforts, including its Siri voice-activated “digital assistant,” as in “catch-up mode” compared to Google.

Whether that’s correct, Apple’s issues with mapping illustrate (pun intended) how some services are only possible with years’ worth of rigorous data collection and updating—making it hard for rivals to catch up, even with billions of dollars on hand to pay for smaller firms.


Image: Molodec/