technology

Fossil announces new update to Android Wear watches with HR tracking, GPS

Posted by | Android, Apple Watch, computing, fossil, Gadgets, Google, gps, huawei watch, Qualcomm, smartwatches, TC, technology, ubiquitous computing, watches, wear os, wearable devices, Wearables | No Comments

Fossil’s Q watch line is an interesting foray by a traditional fashion watchmaker into the wearable world. Their latest additions to the line, the Fossil Q Venture HR and Fossil Q Explorist HR, add a great deal of Android Wear functionality to a watch that is reminiscent of Fossil’s earlier, simpler watches. In other words, these are some nice, low-cost smartwatches for the fitness fan.

The original Q watches included a clever hybrid model with analog face and step counter. As the company expanded into wearables, however, they went the Android Wear route and created a number of lower-powered touchscreen watches. Now, thanks to a new chipset, Fossil is able to add a great deal more functionality in a nice package. The Venture and the Explorist adds untethered GPS, NFC, heart rate and 24-hour battery life. It also includes an altimeter and gyroscope sensor.

The new watches start at $255 and run the Qualcomm Snapdragon Wear 2100 chip, an optimized chipset for fitness watches.

The watch comes in multiple styles and with multiple bands and features 36 faces, including health and fitness-focused faces for the physically ambitious. The watch also allows you to pay with Google Pay — Apple Pay isn’t supported — and you can store content on the watch for runs or walks. It also tracks swims and is waterproof. The Venture and Explorist are 40mm and 45mm, respectively, and the straps are interchangeable. While they’re no $10,000 Swiss masterpiece, these things look — and work — pretty good.

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Chinese tech stocks tumble from more than just trade tensions

Posted by | alibaba group, Android, Asia, Baidu, China, e-commerce, economy, Europe, Google, martin lau, Naspers, pinduoduo, TC, technology, Tencent, United States, world wide web | No Comments

Editor’s note: This post originally appeared on TechNode, an editorial partner of TechCrunch based in China.

Reports of trade tensions between China and the US in the past few months have been hard to ignore. In early July, the US imposed $34 billion on Chinese goods, prompting the Shenzhen Component Index, dominated by technology and consumer product stocks, to fall to its lowest point since 2014, igniting fears among investors.

“The U.S. tariffs, coupled with a falling yuan, will significantly increase the cost for many Chinese technology companies that rely on imported raw materials, such as semiconductors, integrated circuits, and electric components,” Zhang Xia, an analyst for China Merchants Bank Securities, told the South China Morning Post.

Additionally, the U.S. commerce department announced yesterday it will place an embargo on 44 Chinese companies—including the world’s largest surveillance equipment manufacturer Hikvision—for “acting contrary to the national interests or foreign policy of the United States.” The move caused the companies’ share prices to fall by nearly six percent.

However, the focus has shifted to more than just the trade war. And a number of big Chinese tech companies have seen their share prices plummet for other reasons.

Pinduoduo, China’s latest e-commerce giant to list on the Nasdaq, found that an initial public offering (IPO) is not a panacea. Conversely, its listing has drawn attention to the company’s counterfeit products. And investors are not happy.

Tencent’s shares have nosedived by over 25 percent since its peak in January, erasing $143 billion in market value over the past seven months.

Search giant Baidu also hasn’t been immune. The company’s stock price dropped by nearly 8 percent this week following news that Google plans to re-enter the Chinese market.

Government crackdowns

While IPOs are usually a cause for celebration, Pinduoduo has proven this past week they can also be bad for business. The company—which has integrated e-commerce and social media—caters to low-income consumers living outside first and second-tier cities. It has been plagued by accusations of facilitating the sale of counterfeit low-quality goods.

Just days after going public, its share price tumbled by 16 percent, falling below its offer price of $19. The drop was, in part, initiated by requests made by television maker Skyworth to remove counterfeit listings of its products from the e-commerce firm’s marketplace.

The company announced (in Chinese) this week that it had removed 10.7 million listings of problematic goods. However, this did little to assuage concerns from investors and regulators after the latter launched an inquiry into Pinduoduo’s product listings. Its stock price dropped to 30 percent below its closing price on its first day of trading, wiping out over $9 billion in value.

This is unlikely to be helped by the fact that seven U.S. law firms have launched investigations into the company on behalf of its investors. The statement issued by the firms shows that investors suffered financial losses after Chinese regulators began looking into the company’s dealings. The company met today with regulators and agreed to improve its products’ vetting procedures.

However, it’s not only e-commerce platforms that have been affected. Video streaming service Bilibili has seen its stock price drop by almost 21 percent since July 20. The decline comes amid renewed efforts led by the Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC) to crack down on what it deems to be “vulgar” or “inappropriate” content.

The company has subsequently had its app removed from app stores in the country for one month. Nasdaq-listed Bilibili responded by saying it is “in deep self-review and reflection.”

Screenshot of the drop in Bilibili’s stock price. Accessed August 3, 2018

Rumored competition

Baidu, which runs China’s biggest search engine, found that even unconfirmed competition can cause stocks to tumble. In a move which could mark its re-entry into the Chinese market, news broke this week that Google has plans to launch an Android app that could provide filtered results to users in China.

Baidu currently commands nearly 70 percent of China’s search market. Google shut down its search engine in China in 2010 over censorship concerns, giving up access to a vast market. China’s online population now exceeds 770 million, double the entire populace of the U.S. and more than that of Europe.

Baidu’s income is still highly dependant on ad revenue, which increased by 25 percent in the second quarter. Google’s return is clearly seen as a threat, causing Baidu’s stock price to fall from $247.18 on July 31 to $226.83 on August 2. This marks the most significant fall since the company announced the departure of its chief operating officer Lu Qi in May.

Steady decline

Nonetheless, all these losses seem insignificant in comparison to Tencent’s. The company saw its stock price increase by 114 percent in 2017, reaching a record high in January 2018. However, since then, the price has dropped by nearly $130 per share, eviscerating a considerable portion of its market value. In July alone, its stock price fell by 9.9 percent. The company’s devaluation tops Facebook’s $130 billion rout following its earnings call last month.

In April, the company lost over $20 billion in value after South African investment and media firm Naspers — an early and loyal backer — announced it was trimming its stake by two percent. Additionally, Martin Lau, the company’s president, sold one million of his shares in the company. This, added to the Naspers sale and warnings of margin pressure, led to a loss of $51 billion in market value.

“Investors are increasingly pricing in lower expectations for Tencent’s interim results,” Linus Yip, a strategist at First Shanghai Securities in Hong Kong, told Bloomberg.

Yip expects the downward trend to continue, and not just for Tencent. “Overall, tech companies are facing a similar problem. They have been enjoying fast profit growth in the past few years, so it will be difficult for them to maintain similar growth in the future as the competition grows and some segments are saturated,” he said.

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LG Mobile’s losses continue but now sales are falling too

Posted by | Asia, consumer electronics, G7, latin america, LG, LG Electronics, lg g7 thinq, Mobile, smartphone, smartphones, technology | No Comments

Korean electronics giant LG is soaring to new heights, but its mobile division continues to lag well behind the rest of the company and the signs aren’t promising.

LG’s latest financials released today recorded another quarter of success with operating profit jumping 16 percent year-on-year to hit KRW 771 billion ($715.1 million) as overall sales rose 3.2 percent across the group. LG said its sales and profit for the first half of 2018 are at all-time highs but — and you knew a but was coming… — its smartphone division remains a significant loss-maker.

The company’s mobile and communications division — which houses LG Mobile — posted yet another quarter in the red. Sales of KRW 2.07 trillion ($1.92 billion) represented an annual drop of 23 percent, while the division carded an operating loss of KRW 185.4 billion, or $171.95 million.

That’s compared to a quarterly profit of KRW 407 billion ($377.48 million) for LG’s home entertainment business and a KRW 457.2 billion ($424.04 million) profit for its home appliance unit, which are LG’s two stand-out business units.

There’s nothing new herelosses are commonplace for LG Mobile.

It hasn’t been break-even or profitable since 2014. Those losses have been cut by some degree since the company shook up the division with new leadership in November 2017, but there’s plenty to worry about with sales dipping noticeably over the past two quarters of business.

This time around in Q2, LG put its mobile losses down to “the slowing growth of the global smartphone market and a decline in mid- to low-end smartphone sales in Latin America.” While it claimed that the size of the operating loss was down to investments in sales and marketing ahead of the release of its next flagship devices.

There’s a hint a reorganization — perhaps even layoffs — as the company added that it would “seek to further improve its business structure” as it aims prepares to push its LG G7 ThinQ and LG V35 ThinQ devices worldwide and get ready for those new launches.

More changes are on their way, you’d imagine, as LG is surely looking for a way to stem the bleeding but also retain a mobile business has certainly been iconic despite its struggles in recent times. Perhaps the answer is a downsizing in a similar style to Sony in 2016. Back then, the Japanese firm was losing even more than LG is per quarter but it began to be more strategic with its new device launches and target sales markets. The end result of that strategy was an end to the big losses and a more sustainable mobile business.

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Xiaomi goes after global markets with two new Android One phones

Posted by | Android, Android One, Asia, China, computing, Europe, France, hutchison, india, Italy, Mexico, Mobile, RAM, smartphone, smartphones, spain, TC, technology, Xiaomi | No Comments

Xiaomi gave Google’s well-intentioned but somewhat-stalled Android One project a major boost last year when it unveiled its first device under the program, Mi A1. That’s now joined by not one but two sequel devices, after the Chinese phone maker unveiled the Mi A2 and Mi A2 Lite at an event in Spain today.

Xiaomi in Spain? Yes, that’s right. International growth is a major part of the Xiaomi story now that it is a listed business, and Spain is one of a handful of countries in Europe where Xiaomi is aiming to make its mark. These two new A2 handsets are an early push and they’ll be available in over 40 countries, including Spain, France, Italy and 11 other European markets.

Both phones run on Android One — so none of Xiaomi’s iOS-inspired MIUI Android fork — and charge via type-C USB. The 5.99-inch A2 is the more premium option, sporting a Snapdragon 660 processor and 4GB or 6GB RAM with 32GB, 64GB or 128GB in storage. There’s a 20-megapixel front camera and dual 20-megapixel and 16-megapixel cameras on the rear. On-device storage ranges between 32GB, 64GB and 128GB.

The Mi A2 Lite is the more budget option that’s powered by a lesser Snapdragon 625 processor with 3GB or 4GB RAM, and 32GB or 64GB storage options. It comes with a smaller 5.84-inch display, there’s a 12- and 5-megapixel camera array on the reverse and a front-facing five-megapixel camera.

The A2 is priced from €249 to €279 ($291-$327) based on specs. The A2 Lite will sell for €179 or €229 ($210 or $268), against based on RAM and storage selection.

The 40 market availability mirrors the A1 launch last year, but on this occasion, Xiaomi has been busy preparing the ground in a number of countries, particularly in Europe. It has been in Spain for the past year, but it also launched local operations in France and Italy in May and tied up with CK Hutchison to sell phones in other parts of the continent via its 3 telecom business. While it isn’t operational in the U.S., Xiaomi has expanded into Mexico and it has set up partnerships with local retailers in dozens of other countries.

Xiaomi has been successful with its move into India, where it one of the top smartphone sellers, but it has not yet replicated that elsewhere outside of China so far.

China is, as you’d expect, the primary revenue market but Xiaomi is increasingly less dependent on its homeland. For 2017 sales, China represented 72 percent, but it had been 94 percent and 87 percent, respectively, in 2015 and 2016.

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Sales of PCs just grew for the first time in six years

Posted by | Acer, Apple, chromebook, Computer Hardware, computing, Dell, fujitsu, Gadgets, gartner, HP, lenovo, mobile devices, technology | No Comments

Don’t look now, but the PC might not be dead. According to Gartner, collector of marketshare and industry metrics, worldwide shipments of personal computers just experienced the first year-over-year growth since 2012. Shipments totaled 62.1 million units, which is a 1.4 percent increase from the same time period in 2017. The report states “experienced some growth compared with a year ago” but goes on to caution declaring the PC industry as in recovery just yet.

The top five PC vendors all experienced growth with Lenovo seeing the largest gains of 10.5% — though that could be from Lenovo completing a joint venture with Fujitsu. HP grew 6.1%, Dell 9.5%, Apple 3% and Acer 3.1%. All good signs for an industry long thought stagnate. This report excludes Chromebooks from its data. PC vendors experienced growth without the help of Chromebooks, which are the latest challenger to the notebook computer.

Gartner points to the business market as the source of the increased demand. The consumer market, it states, is still decreasing as consumers increasing use mobile devices. Yet growth in the business sector will not last, it says.

“In the business segment, PC momentum will weaken in two years when the replacement peak for Windows 10 passes.” said Mikako Kitagawa, principal analyst at Gartner said in the report. “PC vendors should look for ways to maintain growth in the business market as the Windows 10 upgrade cycle tails off.”

Consumers will likely continue, for the most part, to keep a computer around but since the web is the new desktop, the upgrade cycle for a causal user will keep getting longer. As long as a home has a computer that can run Chrome, that’s likely good enough for most people.

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You can now stream to your Sonos devices via AirPlay 2

Posted by | AirPlay, apple inc, computing, Gadgets, play:1, play:3, siri, smart speakers, Software, Sonos, TC, technology | No Comments

Newer Sonos devices and “rooms” now appear as AirPlay 2-compatible devices, allowing you to stream audio to them via Apple devices. The solution is a long time coming for Sonos which promised AirPlay 2 support in October.

You can stream to Sonos One, Sonos Beam, Playbase, and Play:5 speakers and ask Siri to play music on various speakers (“Hey Siri, play some hip-hop in the kitchen.”) The feature should roll out to current speakers today.

I tried a beta version and it worked as advertised. A set of speakers including a Beam and a Sub in my family room showed up as a single speaker and a Sonos One in the kitchen showed up as another. I was able to stream music and podcasts to either one.

Given the ease with which you can now stream to nearly every device from every device it’s clear that whole-home audio is progressing rapidly. As we noted before Sonos is facing tough competition but little tricks like this one help it stay in the race.

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Digging deeper into smart speakers reveals two clear paths

Posted by | Alexa, Amazon, amazon alexa, Amazon Echo, Apple, artificial intelligence, Assistant, Ben Einstein, computing, echo, Gadgets, Google, Google Assistant, ring, smart speaker, smart speakers, Sonos, sonos one, Speaker, Spotify, steel, TC, technology | No Comments

In a truly fascinating exploration into two smart speakers – the Sonos One and the Amazon Echo – BoltVC’s Ben Einstein has found some interesting differences in the way a traditional speaker company and an infrastructure juggernaut look at their flagship devices.

The post is well worth a full read but the gist is this: Sonos, a very traditional speaker company, has produced a good speaker and modified its current hardware to support smart home features like Alexa and Google Assistant. The Sonos One, notes Einstein, is a speaker first and smart hardware second.

“Digging a bit deeper, we see traditional design and manufacturing processes for pretty much everything. As an example, the speaker grill is a flat sheet of steel that’s stamped, rolled into a rounded square, welded, seams ground smooth, and then powder coated black. While the part does look nice, there’s no innovation going on here,” he writes.

The Amazon Echo, on the other hand, looks like what would happen if an engineer was given an unlimited budget and told to build something that people could talk to. The design decisions are odd and intriguing and it is ultimately less a speaker than a home conversation machine. Plus it is very expensive to make.

Pulling off the sleek speaker grille, there’s a shocking secret here: this is an extruded plastic tube with a secondary rotational drilling operation. In my many years of tearing apart consumer electronics products, I’ve never seen a high-volume plastic part with this kind of process. After some quick math on the production timelines, my guess is there’s a multi-headed drill and a rotational axis to create all those holes. CNC drilling each hole individually would take an extremely long time. If anyone has more insight into how a part like this is made, I’d love to see it! Bottom line: this is another surprisingly expensive part.

Sonos, which has been making a form of smart speaker for 15 years, is a CE company with cachet. Amazon, on the other hand, sees its devices as a way into living rooms and a delivery system for sales and is fine with licensing its tech before making its own. Therefore to compare the two is a bit disingenuous. Einstein’s thesis that Sonos’ trajectory is troubled by the fact that it depends on linear and closed manufacturing techniques while Amazon spares no expense to make its products is true. But Sonos makes speakers that work together amazingly well. They’ve done this for a decade and a half. If you compare their products – and I have – with competing smart speakers an non-audiophile “dumb” speakers you will find their UI, UX, and sound quality surpass most comers.

Amazon makes things to communicate with Amazon. This is a big difference.

Where Einstein is correct, however, is in his belief that Sonos is at a definite disadvantage. Sonos chases smart technology while Amazon and Google (and Apple, if their HomePod is any indication) lead. That said, there is some value to having a fully-connected set of speakers with add-on smart features vs. having to build an entire ecosystem of speaker products that can take on every aspect of the home theatre.

On the flip side Amazon, Apple, and Google are chasing audio quality while Sonos leads. While we can say that in the future we’ll all be fine with tinny round speakers bleating out Spotify in various corners of our room, there is something to be said for a good set of woofers. Whether this nostalgic love of good sound survives this generation’s tendency to watch and listen to low resolution media is anyone’s bet, but that’s Amazon’s bet to lose.

Ultimately Sonos is strong and fascinating company. An upstart that survived the great CE destruction wrought by Kickstarter and Amazon, it produces some of the best mid-range speakers I’ve used. Amazon makes a nice – almost alien – product, but given that it can be easily copied and stuffed into a hockey puck that probably costs less than the entire bill of materials for the Amazon Echo it’s clear that Amazon’s goal isn’t to make speakers.

Whether the coming Sonos IPO will be successful depends partially on Amazon and Google playing ball with the speaker maker. The rest depends on the quality of product and the dedication of Sonos users. This good will isn’t as valuable as a signed contract with major infrastructure players but Sonos’ good will is far more than Amazon and Google have with their popular but potentially intrusive product lines. Sonos lives in the home while Google and Amazon want to invade it. That is where Sonos wins.

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Next iPhone could be available in grey, white, blue, red and orange

Posted by | analyst, Apple, apple inc, electronics, Gadgets, iOS, iPhone, iphone 5s, iPhone SE, LG, macintosh, ming-chi kuo, oled, Samsung, smartphone, technology, Video | No Comments

According to a supply chain report, Apple is preparing to release three iPhone lines this fall. One, a 5.8-inch iPhone X with improved specs and lower price. Two, a new 6.5-inch iPhone X Plus with an OLED screen. And three, a 6.1-inch iPhone with Face ID, which is said to come in a variety of colors including grey, white, blue, red and orange.

Ming-Chi Kuo reports, via 9to5mac, that the 6.5-inch iPhone X Plus is said to take the $1000 price point from the iPhone X. This will cause the next iPhone X to be less expensive than its current incarnation. The colorful 6.1-inch iPhone will be the least expensive model with a price tag around $700. Information about storage was not included in the report.

The least-expensive iPhone is said to resemble the iPhone X and include FaceID though Apple might concede the dual-camera option to the higher price models. The analyst expects this $700 option to account for 55% of new iPhone sales and increase through 2019.

If the part about the colors is correct, Apple is set introduce a slash of color to the monochrome phone market. Currently, phones are mostly available in greys and blacks with most vendors offering a couple of color options through special editions. That’s boring. Apple tried this in the past with its budget-minded iPhone 5c. Making its best-selling model available in colors is a distinct shift in strategy. It’s highly likely other firms such as Samsung and LG will follow the trend and push the smartphone world into a rainbow of colors.

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This could be Apple’s next iPhone USB-C fast charger

Posted by | Apple, apple inc, computing, electronics, Gadgets, iOS, iPhone, macbook, Mobile, technology | No Comments

Right now, the cable that comes with a new iPhone does not plug into a new MacBook Pro without a dongle. #donglelife is for real. If this leak is correct, though, that wrong might soon be righted.

Photos have surfaced showing what is an engineering prototype of an Apple 18 W USB-C charger, which is supposedly to be bundled with the next iPhone. If correct, this will let owners take advantage of the iPhone’s fast charging capabilities without purchasing anything else. Plus, it will let users connect the iPhone to a MacBook Pro out of the box.

This rumor surfaced last year, too, though no photos ever surfaced to back up the claim.

If true, this adapter will mark the first major change in the iPhone’s wall charger. Apple has long bundled a 5W charger with the iPhone. It works fine, but does not supply the phone with the necessary power to charge at its fastest possible speed. Even if the photos here show something other than an official Apple product, chances are Apple is readying something similar. Previous leaks show something similar.

Apple included fast charging in the iPhone 8, iPhone 8 Plus and iPhone X but didn’t include the necessary charger to take advantage of the technology. Owners have to buy a third-party charger of the $50 30W charger from Apple.

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Apple is rebuilding Maps from the ground up

Posted by | Apple, apple inc, Apple Maps, artificial intelligence, california, ceo, Chevron, computing, driver, eddy cue, Google, gps, iPad, iPhone, Japan, journalist, location services, mac pro, machine learning, Mobile, mobile devices, OpenStreetMap, San Francisco, satellite imagery, smartphones, Software, TC, technology, TomTom, United States, vp | No Comments

I’m not sure if you’re aware, but the launch of Apple Maps went poorly. After a rough first impression, an apology from the CEO, several years of patching holes with data partnerships and some glimmers of light with long-awaited transit directions and improvements in business, parking and place data, Apple Maps is still not where it needs to be to be considered a world-class service.

Maps needs fixing.

Apple, it turns out, is aware of this, so it’s re-building the maps part of Maps.

It’s doing this by using first-party data gathered by iPhones with a privacy-first methodology and its own fleet of cars packed with sensors and cameras. The new product will launch in San Francisco and the Bay Area with the next iOS 12 beta and will cover Northern California by fall.

Every version of iOS will get the updated maps eventually, and they will be more responsive to changes in roadways and construction, more visually rich depending on the specific context they’re viewed in and feature more detailed ground cover, foliage, pools, pedestrian pathways and more.

This is nothing less than a full re-set of Maps and it’s been four years in the making, which is when Apple began to develop its new data-gathering systems. Eventually, Apple will no longer rely on third-party data to provide the basis for its maps, which has been one of its major pitfalls from the beginning.

“Since we introduced this six years ago — we won’t rehash all the issues we’ve had when we introduced it — we’ve done a huge investment in getting the map up to par,” says Apple SVP Eddy Cue, who now owns Maps, in an interview last week. “When we launched, a lot of it was all about directions and getting to a certain place. Finding the place and getting directions to that place. We’ve done a huge investment of making millions of changes, adding millions of locations, updating the map and changing the map more frequently. All of those things over the past six years.”

But, Cue says, Apple has room to improve on the quality of Maps, something that most users would agree on, even with recent advancements.

“We wanted to take this to the next level,” says Cue. “We have been working on trying to create what we hope is going to be the best map app in the world, taking it to the next step. That is building all of our own map data from the ground up.”

In addition to Cue, I spoke to Apple VP Patrice Gautier and more than a dozen Apple Maps team members at its mapping headquarters in California this week about its efforts to re-build Maps, and to do it in a way that aligned with Apple’s very public stance on user privacy.

If, like me, you’re wondering whether Apple thought of building its own maps from scratch before it launched Maps, the answer is yes. At the time, there was a choice to be made about whether or not it wanted to be in the business of maps at all. Given that the future of mobile devices was becoming very clear, it knew that mapping would be at the core of nearly every aspect of its devices, from photos to directions to location services provided to apps. Decision made, Apple plowed ahead, building a product that relied on a patchwork of data from partners like TomTom, OpenStreetMap and other geo data brokers. The result was underwhelming.

Almost immediately after Apple launched Maps, it realized that it was going to need help and it signed on a bunch of additional data providers to fill the gaps in location, base map, point-of-interest and business data.

It wasn’t enough.

“We decided to do this just over four years ago. We said, ‘Where do we want to take Maps? What are the things that we want to do in Maps?’ We realized that, given what we wanted to do and where we wanted to take it, we needed to do this ourselves,” says Cue.

Because Maps are so core to so many functions, success wasn’t tied to just one function. Maps needed to be great at transit, driving and walking — but also as a utility used by apps for location services and other functions.

Cue says that Apple needed to own all of the data that goes into making a map, and to control it from a quality as well as a privacy perspective.

There’s also the matter of corrections, updates and changes entering a long loop of submission to validation to update when you’re dealing with external partners. The Maps team would have to be able to correct roads, pathways and other updating features in days or less, not months. Not to mention the potential competitive advantages it could gain from building and updating traffic data from hundreds of millions of iPhones, rather than relying on partner data.

Cue points to the proliferation of devices running iOS, now over a billion, as a deciding factor to shift its process.

“We felt like because the shift to devices had happened — building a map today in the way that we were traditionally doing it, the way that it was being done — we could improve things significantly, and improve them in different ways,” he says. “One is more accuracy. Two is being able to update the map faster based on the data and the things that we’re seeing, as opposed to driving again or getting the information where the customer’s proactively telling us. What if we could actually see it before all of those things?”

I query him on the rapidity of Maps updates, and whether this new map philosophy means faster changes for users.

“The truth is that Maps needs to be [updated more], and even are today,” says Cue. “We’ll be doing this even more with our new maps, [with] the ability to change the map in real time and often. We do that every day today. This is expanding us to allow us to do it across everything in the map. Today, there’s certain things that take longer to change.

“For example, a road network is something that takes a much longer time to change currently. In the new map infrastructure, we can change that relatively quickly. If a new road opens up, immediately we can see that and make that change very, very quickly around it. It’s much, much more rapid to do changes in the new map environment.”

So a new effort was created to begin generating its own base maps, the very lowest building block of any really good mapping system. After that, Apple would begin layering on living location data, high-resolution satellite imagery and brand new intensely high-resolution image data gathered from its ground cars until it had what it felt was a “best in class” mapping product.

There is only really one big company on earth that owns an entire map stack from the ground up: Google .

Apple knew it needed to be the other one. Enter the vans.

Apple vans spotted

Though the overall project started earlier, the first glimpse most folks had of Apple’s renewed efforts to build the best Maps product was the vans that started appearing on the roads in 2015 with “Apple Maps” signs on the side. Capped with sensors and cameras, these vans popped up in various cities and sparked rampant discussion and speculation.

The new Apple Maps will be the first time the data collected by these vans is actually used to construct and inform its maps. This is their coming out party.

Some people have commented that Apple’s rigs look more robust than the simple GPS + Camera arrangements on other mapping vehicles — going so far as to say they look more along the lines of something that could be used in autonomous vehicle training.

Apple isn’t commenting on autonomous vehicles, but there’s a reason the arrays look more advanced: they are.

Earlier this week I took a ride in one of the vans as it ran a sample route to gather the kind of data that would go into building the new maps. Here’s what’s inside.

In addition to a beefed-up GPS rig on the roof, four LiDAR arrays mounted at the corners and eight cameras shooting overlapping high-resolution images, there’s also the standard physical measuring tool attached to a rear wheel that allows for precise tracking of distance and image capture. In the rear there is a surprising lack of bulky equipment. Instead, it’s a straightforward Mac Pro bolted to the floor, attached to an array of solid state drives for storage. A single USB cable routes up to the dashboard where the actual mapping-capture software runs on an iPad.

While mapping, a driver…drives, while an operator takes care of the route, ensuring that a coverage area that has been assigned is fully driven, as well as monitoring image capture. Each drive captures thousands of images as well as a full point cloud (a 3D map of space defined by dots that represent surfaces) and GPS data. I later got to view the raw data presented in 3D and it absolutely looks like the quality of data you would need to begin training autonomous vehicles.

More on why Apple needs this level of data detail later.

When the images and data are captured, they are then encrypted on the fly and recorded on to the SSDs. Once full, the SSDs are pulled out, replaced and packed into a case, which is delivered to Apple’s data center, where a suite of software eliminates from the images private information like faces, license plates and other info. From the moment of capture to the moment they’re sanitized, they are encrypted with one key in the van and the other key in the data center. Technicians and software that are part of its mapping efforts down the pipeline from there never see unsanitized data.

This is just one element of Apple’s focus on the privacy of the data it is utilizing in New Maps.

Probe data and privacy

Throughout every conversation I have with any member of the team throughout the day, privacy is brought up, emphasized. This is obviously by design, as Apple wants to impress upon me as a journalist that it’s taking this very seriously indeed, but it doesn’t change the fact that it’s evidently built in from the ground up and I could not find a false note in any of the technical claims or the conversations I had.

Indeed, from the data security folks to the people whose job it is to actually make the maps work well, the constant refrain is that Apple does not feel that it is being held back in any way by not hoovering every piece of customer-rich data it can, storing and parsing it.

The consistent message is that the team feels it can deliver a high-quality navigation, location and mapping product without the directly personal data used by other platforms.

“We specifically don’t collect data, even from point A to point B,” notes Cue. “We collect data — when we do it — in an anonymous fashion, in subsections of the whole, so we couldn’t even say that there is a person that went from point A to point B. We’re collecting the segments of it. As you can imagine, that’s always been a key part of doing this. Honestly, we don’t think it buys us anything [to collect more]. We’re not losing any features or capabilities by doing this.”

The segments that he is referring to are sliced out of any given person’s navigation session. Neither the beginning or the end of any trip is ever transmitted to Apple. Rotating identifiers, not personal information, are assigned to any data or requests sent to Apple and it augments the “ground truth” data provided by its own mapping vehicles with this “probe data” sent back from iPhones.

Because only random segments of any person’s drive is ever sent and that data is completely anonymized, there is never a way to tell if any trip was ever a single individual. The local system signs the IDs and only it knows to whom that ID refers. Apple is working very hard here to not know anything about its users. This kind of privacy can’t be added on at the end, it has to be woven in at the ground level.

Because Apple’s business model does not rely on it serving to you, say, an ad for a Chevron on your route, it doesn’t need to even tie advertising identifiers to users.

Any personalization or Siri requests are all handled on-board by the iOS device’s processor. So if you get a drive notification that tells you it’s time to leave for your commute, that’s learned, remembered and delivered locally, not from Apple’s servers.

That’s not new, but it’s important to note given the new thing to take away here: Apple is flipping on the power of having millions of iPhones passively and actively improving their mapping data in real time.

In short: Traffic, real-time road conditions, road systems, new construction and changes in pedestrian walkways are about to get a lot better in Apple Maps.

The secret sauce here is what Apple calls probe data. Essentially little slices of vector data that represent direction and speed transmitted back to Apple completely anonymized with no way to tie it to a specific user or even any given trip. It’s reaching in and sipping a tiny amount of data from millions of users instead, giving it a holistic, real-time picture without compromising user privacy.

If you’re driving, walking or cycling, your iPhone can already tell this. Now if it knows you’re driving, it also can send relevant traffic and routing data in these anonymous slivers to improve the entire service. This only happens if your Maps app has been active, say you check the map, look for directions, etc. If you’re actively using your GPS for walking or driving, then the updates are more precise and can help with walking improvements like charting new pedestrian paths through parks — building out the map’s overall quality.

All of this, of course, is governed by whether you opted into location services, and can be toggled off using the maps location toggle in the Privacy section of settings.

Apple says that this will have a near zero effect on battery life or data usage, because you’re already using the ‘maps’ features when any probe data is shared and it’s a fraction of what power is being drawn by those activities.

From the point cloud on up

But maps cannot live on ground truth and mobile data alone. Apple is also gathering new high-resolution satellite data to combine with its ground truth data for a solid base map. It’s then layering satellite imagery on top of that to better determine foliage, pathways, sports facilities, building shapes and pathways.

After the downstream data has been cleaned up of license plates and faces, it gets run through a bunch of computer vision programming to pull out addresses, street signs and other points of interest. These are cross referenced to publicly available data like addresses held by the city and new construction of neighborhoods or roadways that comes from city planning departments.

But one of the special sauce bits that Apple is adding to the mix of mapping tools is a full-on point cloud that maps in 3D the world around the mapping van. This allows them all kinds of opportunities to better understand what items are street signs (retro-reflective rectangular object about 15 feet off the ground? Probably a street sign) or stop signs or speed limit signs.

It seems like it also could enable positioning of navigation arrows in 3D space for AR navigation, but Apple declined to comment on “any future plans” for such things.

Apple also uses semantic segmentation and Deep Lambertian Networks to analyze the point cloud coupled with the image data captured by the car and from high-resolution satellites in sync. This allows 3D identification of objects, signs, lanes of traffic and buildings and separation into categories that can be highlighted for easy discovery.

The coupling of high-resolution image data from car and satellite, plus a 3D point cloud, results in Apple now being able to produce full orthogonal reconstructions of city streets with textures in place. This is massively higher-resolution and easier to see, visually. And it’s synchronized with the “panoramic” images from the car, the satellite view and the raw data. These techniques are used in self-driving applications because they provide a really holistic view of what’s going on around the car. But the ortho view can do even more for human viewers of the data by allowing them to “see” through brush or tree cover that would normally obscure roads, buildings and addresses.

This is hugely important when it comes to the next step in Apple’s battle for supremely accurate and useful Maps: human editors.

Apple has had a team of tool builders working specifically on a toolkit that can be used by human editors to vet and parse data, street by street. The editor’s suite includes tools that allow human editors to assign specific geometries to flyover buildings (think Salesforce tower’s unique ridged dome) that allow them to be instantly recognizable. It lets editors look at real images of street signs shot by the car right next to 3D reconstructions of the scene and computer vision detection of the same signs, instantly recognizing them as accurate or not.

Another tool corrects addresses, letting an editor quickly move an address to the center of a building, determine whether they’re misplaced and shift them around. It also allows for access points to be set, making Apple Maps smarter about the “last 50 feet” of your journey. You’ve made it to the building, but what street is the entrance actually on? And how do you get into the driveway? With a couple of clicks, an editor can make that permanently visible.

“When we take you to a business and that business exists, we think the precision of where we’re taking you to, from being in the right building,” says Cue. “When you look at places like San Francisco or big cities from that standpoint, you have addresses where the address name is a certain street, but really, the entrance in the building is on another street. They’ve done that because they want the better street name. Those are the kinds of things that our new Maps really is going to shine on. We’re going to make sure that we’re taking you to exactly the right place, not a place that might be really close by.”

Water, swimming pools (new to Maps entirely), sporting areas and vegetation are now more prominent and fleshed out thanks to new computer vision and satellite imagery applications. So Apple had to build editing tools for those, as well.

Many hundreds of editors will be using these tools, in addition to the thousands of employees Apple already has working on maps, but the tools had to be built first, now that Apple is no longer relying on third parties to vet and correct issues.

And the team also had to build computer vision and machine learning tools that allow it to determine whether there are issues to be found at all.

Anonymous probe data from iPhones, visualized, looks like thousands of dots, ebbing and flowing across a web of streets and walkways, like a luminescent web of color. At first, chaos. Then, patterns emerge. A street opens for business, and nearby vessels pump orange blood into the new artery. A flag is triggered and an editor looks to see if a new road needs a name assigned.

A new intersection is added to the web and an editor is flagged to make sure that the left turn lanes connect correctly across the overlapping layers of directional traffic. This has the added benefit of massively improved lane guidance in the new Apple Maps.

Apple is counting on this combination of human and AI flagging to allow editors to first craft base maps and then also maintain them as the ever-changing biomass wreaks havoc on roadways, addresses and the occasional park.

Here there be Helvetica

Apple’s new Maps, like many other digital maps, display vastly differently depending on scale. If you’re zoomed out, you get less detail. If you zoom in, you get more. But Apple has a team of cartographers on staff that work on more cultural, regional and artistic levels to ensure that its Maps are readable, recognizable and useful.

These teams have goals that are at once concrete and a bit out there — in the best traditions of Apple pursuits that intersect the technical with the artistic.

The maps need to be usable, but they also need to fulfill cognitive goals on cultural levels that go beyond what any given user might know they need. For instance, in the U.S., it is very common to have maps that have a relatively low level of detail even at a medium zoom. In Japan, however, the maps are absolutely packed with details at the same zoom, because that increased information density is what is expected by users.

This is the department of details. They’ve reconstructed replicas of hundreds of actual road signs to make sure that the shield on your navigation screen matches the one you’re seeing on the highway road sign. When it comes to public transport, Apple licensed all of the type faces that you see on your favorite subway systems, like Helvetica for NYC. And the line numbers are in the exact same order that you’re going to see them on the platform signs.

It’s all about reducing the cognitive load that it takes to translate the physical world you have to navigate into the digital world represented by Maps.

Bottom line

The new version of Apple Maps will be in preview next week with just the Bay Area of California going live. It will be stitched seamlessly into the “current” version of Maps, but the difference in quality level should be immediately visible based on what I’ve seen so far.

Better road networks, more pedestrian information, sports areas like baseball diamonds and basketball courts, more land cover, including grass and trees, represented on the map, as well as buildings, building shapes and sizes that are more accurate. A map that feels more like the real world you’re actually traveling through.

Search is also being revamped to make sure that you get more relevant results (on the correct continents) than ever before. Navigation, especially pedestrian guidance, also gets a big boost. Parking areas and building details to get you the last few feet to your destination are included, as well.

What you won’t see, for now, is a full visual redesign.

“You’re not going to see huge design changes on the maps,” says Cue. “We don’t want to combine those two things at the same time because it would cause a lot of confusion.”

Apple Maps is getting the long-awaited attention it really deserves. By taking ownership of the project fully, Apple is committing itself to actually creating the map that users expected of it from the beginning. It’s been a lingering shadow on iPhones, especially, where alternatives like Google Maps have offered more robust feature sets that are so easy to compare against the native app but impossible to access at the deep system level.

The argument has been made ad nauseam, but it’s worth saying again that if Apple thinks that mapping is important enough to own, it should own it. And that’s what it’s trying to do now.

“We don’t think there’s anybody doing this level of work that we’re doing,” adds Cue. “We haven’t announced this. We haven’t told anybody about this. It’s one of those things that we’ve been able to keep pretty much a secret. Nobody really knows about it. We’re excited to get it out there. Over the next year, we’ll be rolling it out, section by section in the U.S.”

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