Accurate and up-to-date maps of internal spaces are a prerequisite of many iBeacon applications. Recently, the big players in mapping have been extending their coverage indoors. So what's the current state of indoor mapping, and what are their intentions?
Google has indoor maps of over 10,000 locations worldwide - a list of examples by country can be found here. They appear to be a mixture of transport locations (such as airports and large stations), retail outlets and cultural institutions. Property owners can upload their own floor plans subject to approval. Owners are encouraged to then use a special tool to walk around and capture all of the existing signals indicating position in the space, such as Wi-Fi and mobile networks.
It's clear that maps of large transport locations could enhance Google's transit directions, but its intentions for retail and cultural institutions are unclear. Indoor maps are currently available on desktop and Android devices - a recent update to the Google Maps app permissions included access to Bluetooth and this is a strong hint of coming integration of beacons with maps.
The example below shows the British Museum in London - internal spaces are shown and labelled, and there is a floor selector on the right.
Predictably, Apple has been more forthright about the integration of iBeacon with internal mapping, but more veiled about its progress and intentions. Owners of larger venues with Wi-Fi throughout can use Maps Connect to add "complete, accurate, and scaled reference maps" of their venue.
Little more has been announced publicly, so we don't know the scale of Apple's indoor mapping efforts, but they hired the CEO of an indoor mapping company last year, and a number of patents related to indoor mapping have come to light recently (like this one).
Microsoft appeared to have the lead on its competitors in indoor mapping, having been adding them as venue maps since late 2010, starting with large shopping malls. However, there seem to be only around 5000 such maps, spread across a wider range of venue types.
It could be that, after an initial focus on retail, indoor mapping has been de-prioritised by Microsoft, and it does not seem to be possible to upload your own maps.
We've shown the British Museum again for comparison - the level of detail is similar and individual floors can also be selected.
Nokia HERE Maps
Nokia's HERE mapping division was not acquired by Microsoft as part of the Mobile Devices and Services business, and currently appears to be the strongest contender in indoor (or venue) mapping.
Venue maps have just been released out of beta in the HERE Android app, but Nokia has been building its collection since 2012, and now has more than 100,000 such maps across 70 countries. The types of venue represented appear similar to their competitors but with a stronger emphasis on retail. In 2013, 70% of venue maps were for retail locations. It's telling that HERE does not have a venue map for the British Museum, however it does have indoor maps for all 6 large shopping malls in and around Glasgow, the 4th largest city in the UK.
The exmple below shows one such mall in the HERE app. Floors can be selected, and the map seems quite complete in terms of assignment of retailers to specific units.
It's unclear whether venue owners can upload their own maps, but Nokia seems to be aggressively expanding coverage on its own. Also unclear is whether Nokia has any specific plans for iBeacon integration - the app permissions do not currently include Bluetooth control.
All of the big players in maps have made some inroads (so to speak) in indoor mapping. As Apple has learned, success with maps requires accuracy and reliability that users can trust, as well as comprehensive coverage. It's therefore hardly surprising that they're keeping their indoor offering somewhat under wraps until it's really ready for prime time. So far, it seems they're relying on business owners to do the leg work, but they could be expanding their coverage in secret.
Meanwhile, Nokia's HERE has quietly become the biggest player with indoor coverage 10x that of its nearest rival (Google) and a mobile app gaining significant (and well deserved) traction.
Their plans clearly involve a retail play, and it's very likely that could incorporate iBeacon. However they may be relying on 3rd parties to build on HERE as a platform, since they offer comprehensive developer APIs that include venue maps.