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Apple Prepares to Take the Mapping Fight to the Streets

By Evan Niu, CFA - Apr 4, 2013 at 7:30PM

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Apple doesn't want to duke it out with Google indoors. The Mac maker turned map maker might be about to take it outside.

In the war over mobile mapping, Google (GOOGL 4.20%) remains the uncontested leader. The search giant is undoubtedly the gold standard when it comes to mobile mapping.

Perhaps you've heard by now that Apple (AAPL 4.08%) ditching Google Maps didn't go so well, although the net result of the debacle was that iOS mapping ended up stronger than ever after Big G released an even better version of Google Maps as a third-party iOS app -- even better than Google Maps for Android, by Google's own admission.

Let's take this outside
One of the key features at the center of the spat was turn-by-turn navigation. There's another key feature Google has that Apple wants: Street View. According to a recent patent application that was initially filed in September 2011 but just now made public and uncovered by AppleInsider, Apple is exploring similar technology. 

The application is titled "3D Position Tracking for Panoramic Imagery Navigation," and involves using a mobile device's sensors to navigate a location. Moving the device physically provides data that "can be used to move up or down a virtual street or other navigation actions."

To date, Apple doesn't have any street imagery of its own to use, though, while Google has an abundance of it. At this point, Big G has nothing better to do with Street View than to go scuba diving or mountain climbing, so it's safe to say the company is comfortable with its imagery lead.

Street View car. Source: Google.

This may be the biggest missing part of the puzzle. Google has spent years driving around its Street View cars, tricycles, and snowmobiles, paying $7 million in fines over those Street View cars, just to get all those snapshots. (Some even thought it ran over a donkey in in pursuit of those photos.) It's unthinkable that Google would hand over this data to Apple, but the Mac maker could potentially partner with someone who has a comparable collection.

At the same time, both Apple and Google continue to explore indoor mapping possibilities. Apple just acquired WifiSLAM, a small start-up that used Wi-Fi signals to locate smartphones indoors. Apple not only wants to fight indoors, but it may be preparing to take the fight to the streets.

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