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Where is mobile going? Look at a map to find out


Everybody knows what the key features in the next iPhone will be, don’t they? Holographic display with a breath-based interface, pop-out augmented reality glasses, and a built-in projector that’ll beam an Apple logo into the sky, Batman-style. The camera will still be a bit crap.

Okay, so I made that up, which is exactly what analysts and bloggers will be spending the next six months doing, citing mysterious experts, insiders and – a favourite for analysts – unnamed Taiwanese component suppliers. Apple might only launch a new iPhone model once every 12 months, but wild speculation about its features is a year-round pastime for the mobile industry.

This week, the iPhone jungle drums have started beating once again, following news that a device identifying itself as ‘iPhone 3,1’ had been spotted in the usage logs of the iBart application. iPhone 3GS is identified as ‘iPhone 2,1’ in these logs, so it means an Apple employee has been riding the BART transport system in San Francisco while testing a prototype of the next-gen iPhone. Presumably while sweating furiously at the thought of accidentally pressing the iBatBeam button by mistake in a dark tunnel.

However, that’s not the only bit of news that’s leaked out this week about iPhone’s future. Apple is recruiting an iPhone Software Engineer to join its Maps team, with the job ad claiming that “We want to take Maps to the next level, rethink how users use Maps and change the way people find things. We want to do this in a seamless, highly interactive and enjoyable way. We’ve only just started.”

Cue the widespread assumption that Apple is preparing to kick Google Maps to the kerb in favour of its own maps app in the next iPhone – an assumption bolstered by the fact that earlier this year, Apple quietly bought a mapping company called Placebase.

Meanwhile, Google has been busily adding more interactive features to its Google Maps apps on other smart phones, including its own Android platform, while not bringing them to iPhone. Whether that’s Google or Apple’s decision is keeping the jungle drums going. What’s clear, though, is that maps (or Maps, or MAPS if you’re excitable) are going to be hugely important in 2010 and beyond.

Look at Google, which recently turned Google Maps into a fully-fledged turn-by-turn driving app for Android, sending the share prices of dedicated sat-nav firms plunging in the process. Look at Nokia, which bought mapping firm Navteq for a whopping $8.1 billion a couple of years ago, and has recently been shouting about its evolution into Ovi Maps – complete with its own buzz-phrase ‘social location’.

It’s not just Apple looking to make maps “highly interactive and enjoyable” – its key rivals, not to mention thousands of developers, have the same ambition. Maps are already an intrinsic part of any smartphone owner’s life – when was the last time you printed out a map before going somewhere? But when Steve Jobs gives ‘iPhone3,1’ its public bow sometime next year, it seems location and mapping will be at the heart of its new features. Holographic or not.

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