Could Apple drones take on Google Maps?

The craft will record changes to road conditions and track construction areas, providing on-the-fly travel updates to users.

This image released by Google shows a three-dimensional view of the Cliff House in San Francisco on Google Earth. Apple hopes to challenge the search giant's mapping dominance with aerial drones that can provide real-time updates on road conditions.

Faced with slipping smartphone sales, Apple may have found a new way to edge in on Google’s map monopoly: a fleet of survey drones.

The new drones will join the company’s current line of camera-equipped minivans, an anonymous source told Bloomberg last week, as Apple attempts to improve its much-maligned Maps service. The craft will record changes to road conditions and track construction areas, the source said, providing on-the-fly travel updates to users.

With 2012’s disastrous launch in the rearview, Apple has plenty of incentive to revamp Maps. As the company seeks to integrate with ride-sharing and retail apps, accurate location services will be essential. But the new tech could also represent a conceptual redirect for the tech giant, which has long relied on smartphone sales.

Throughout its history, Apple has often changed focus. A dedication to creative professionals kept the company afloat in its most difficult years in the mid-1990s, but consumer products – namely the iPod and the iPhone – made Apple what it is today. That, and a self-perpetuating brand culture.

“iPhone marketing campaigns make people believe they are a part of a grand social movement, even when that community appears so highly commercialized,” Isabel Pedersen, a professor of digital culture at the University of Ontario, told The Christian Science Monitor last month. “iPhone has mastered the feeling that you belong to a tribe and that you earned it – not only through an expensive phone, but also through your identity, your personality, your friends, and your loyalty.”

But as smartphone sales decline, Alphabet is gambling on smart lifestyle essentials – and making big gains in the process. To catch up, Apple may again shift focus to new services and products. In November, the company hinted about its autonomous car development in an open letter to US regulators.

But such services have been historically difficult for the company. That’s because in many cases, Apple wasn’t excelling at tech, but at integration. Sure, its music players – and touch screens, news aggregation, voice recognition, and so on – were second-rate, but where else could you get all of those things in such a user-friendly package?

When Maps launched in 2012, critics slammed its poor functionality: the app mixed up hospitals with supermarkets and directed drivers to travel on airport runways. At that point, Google Maps had comfortably led the market for years, and Apple’s alternative was a non-threat.

When current CEO Tim Cook took over, he asked executives to reexamine the development process. The famously secretive company began public beta testing, widening the service’s scope far beyond the Silicon Valley.

“We made significant changes to all of our development processes because of it,” Eddy Cue, Apple’s SVP of Internet software and services, told Fast Company in August. “To all of us living in Cupertino, the maps for here were pretty darn good. Right? So [the problem] wasn’t obvious to us. We were never able to take it out to a large number of users to get that feedback. Now we do.”

Alphabet, meanwhile, is rapidly reorganizing beyond individual products. The search giant has invested big in a number of “moonshot” technologies in the past year, but there’s one common thread: Google wants to be essential to users’ daily lives. That’s why services like Maps may be essential to Apple’s so-called “thermonuclear war” on its competitor.

“We had long discussions at the ET [executive team] level about the importance of Maps, where we thought it was going in the future, and could we treat it as a third-party app?” Mr. Cue said. “We don’t do every app. We’re not trying to create a Facebook app. They do a great job. We decided that Maps is integral to our whole platform. There were so many features that we wanted to build that are dependent on that technology, and we couldn’t see ourselves being in a position where that was something that we didn’t own.”

“Let’s say I’m at home doing email before work,” Cue added. "I’d like Maps to tell me, ‘Don’t leave now. Your commute will be cut by 15 minutes if you stay home for a while.’ That would be very helpful.”

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