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Apple, Location Services & The “Improved Traffic Service”

In Apple’s official response to the location tracking issue uncovered by security researchers last week, an interesting tidbit seems to confirm that the company is seriously committed to delivering improved mapping and navigation software to iPhone users by focusing on building a new “traffic service” to roll out publicly in the next couple of years. From the Q&A:

What other location data is Apple collecting from the iPhone besides crowd-sourced Wi-Fi hotspot and cell tower data?

Apple is now collecting anonymous traffic data to build a crowd-sourced traffic database with the goal of providing iPhone users an improved traffic service in the next couple of years.

The wording of the statement isn’t clear (some suggest “traffic” may be related to “internet traffic” according to specific locations), but let’s just play along and assume it’s linked to the turn-by-turn navigation software and new mapping features for iOS devices Apple has been rumored to be working on for a very long time. If “traffic” is related to navigation and mobile maps, there’s plenty room for speculation after today’s press release: in the past years, several job listings on Apple’s website hinted at open positions in the iOS team for map engineers and navigation experts, suggesting that Apple was working on its own proprietary solution to ditch Google Maps on the iPhone, iPod touch and iPad. The acquisitions of mapping companies Placebase and Poly9 in 2009 and 2010, respectively, gave some credence to the reports that pointed at Apple willing to become the next major player in the mobile mapping scene.

But the acquisitions and job postings don’t tell the whole story: whilst it’s very likely that Apple’s aiming to replace Google Maps on iOS devices with their own alternative, today’s response to the location tracking kerfuffle sheds some light on another aspect of location services: traffic and navigation. Again, assuming “traffic” doesn’t stand for “internet traffic” and we’re not talking about Steve Jobs planning on entering the carrier space here, Apple may be hinting at a new turn-by-turn navigation service built for GPS-enabled devices coming out in the next few iterations of iOS, perhaps not iOS 5 this Fall but iOS 6 in 2012. Turn-by-turn navigation, one of the biggest advantages of Android over iOS and something that’s been long desired by iPhone users so much to even build jailbreak tweaks to enable it, could be integrated into Apple’s own Maps application and might be related to the fact that Apple stopped Google’s and Skyhook’s location databases back in 2010. Today’s Q&A clearly states that Apple is gathering anonymous, encrypted location data to offer a better service to iPhone users:

Can Apple locate me based on my geo-tagged Wi-Fi hotspot and cell tower data?

No. This data is sent to Apple in an anonymous and encrypted form. Apple cannot identify the source of this data.

People have identified up to a year’s worth of location data being stored on the iPhone. Why does my iPhone need so much data in order to assist it in finding my location today?

This data is not the iPhone’s location data—it is a subset (cache) of the crowd-sourced Wi-Fi hotspot and cell tower database which is downloaded from Apple into the iPhone to assist the iPhone in rapidly and accurately calculating location.

On top of this, Apple says that iAds can be targeted based on location, but location info isn’t sent back to advertisers and the users have to explicitly confirm they want to share their geo-location data with Apple’s iAd program. Overall, Apple is collecting anonymous cell tower, Wi-Fi hotspot and traffic data, but they’re doing this to make the iPhone work better when triangulating signals without using GPS, and to offer an “improved” traffic service that’s still in the development stages. This is what Apple PR told everyone this morning.

Now, there’s no doubt Apple has thought about offering its now mapping solution, as well as an alternative to Android’ popular free navigation software by Google. Looking for second meanings and hints in Apple’s statements, however, is always a risky business: sure, the Q&A document says Apple is working on something new. Is there a chance Apple is referring to turn-by-turn navigation for iPhones? Maybe. Most of all, though, can past reports, rumors and speculation confirm the vague wording of today’s press release? I’m not exactly sure.

Apple may be working on a new “traffic service” that helps iPhone users avoid remaining stuck in traffic by tracking the location of phones anonymously – there’s no denying Apple wanted to hint at something this morning alongside addressing the issues of location cache databases. But, in spite of all previous rumors and stories, it’s still too soon to claim Apple has “confirmed” turn-by-turn navigation is coming to the iPhone.

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