Feeling my way

So Apple’s looking for somebody to ‘Take Maps to the Next Level‘. If ever there was a phrase that falls with a dull thud, there it is.

There’s nothing wrong with maps. Not Maps, just maps in general. They’re great. It’s an amazing spin on our experience of the world, where our vision is translated into a top down view of the world. We dream of flying, yet our imagination does this over abstract concepts and three dimensional experiences with ease every day. It’s not even a particularly modern or hi-tech thing, but more an innate human understanding, as the Mappa Mundi and Australian aboriginal art demonstrates.

So that’s why I have two rather un-thumbed tomes on my desk: Objective C for Dummies and iPhone Application Development for Dummies. Hey, I had a Sinclair ZX81 and learned BASIC on a Commodore PET, I’ve written Lingo that makes an Interative CD-ROM do vaguely useful things. I too can write iPhone apps!

Because maps are Old Skool.

When the iPhone 3Gs came out, with its combination of GPS and compass, I was so excited. In an interface-geek kind of way.

I want to fondle my iPhone in my pocket or wear it up my sleeve. I want to wave it hither and thither like a hyper accurate dowsing rod and follow a route that you can feel as little ‘bumps’ by rolling over a virtual string that’s been created by location-aware helper apps.

Your GPS location and your iPhone’s compass orientation work together to give a simple non-visual feedback that works in any language, in any environment. Reach out and feel the virtual guide rope. As you wave your arm around, or simply spin it in your pocket, there’s a little ‘clunk’ – not a buzz, but a short yet heavy ‘clunk’ you can rock over. Like rolling a mouse over a big bit of grit. Just like Derren Brown feeling for micro-motor anomalies in an Italian passer-by, but a lot easier and quicker; you navigate round a strange space by a sort of virtual touch.

So all I need is to work out a direction finding routine – surely built into Maps already, and tap into the APIs for the GPS, the Compass and the wobbler (sorry, the documentation I’ve read so far doesn’t say what the API refers to to make the thing go ‘clunk’).

I’ll then generate some really great marketing spin at the tail end of beta testing – do some viral video with lots of people waving stuff in front of them, the parody of dowsing, then cutting a deal into a bit of pulp fiction centering around some American city that also has ties into more European cities, then sit back and wait for the millions to roll in from the iStore.

Except I fell at the first fence.

I really shouldn’t write code. I am really bad at it, I don’t have the mathematical knowledge, the patience or the raw skill to get beyond the ‘hello world’ stage. And I haven’t enjoyed getting that far. It’s like trying to write poetry in a foreign language or write a National Anthem for an obscure musical instrument. You really need to know stuff that’s not about what you want to do. There’s so much stuff you need to know just to get over the Programming 101 that, well, really, look – I don’t do Pointers or memory management or all that stuff. I thought I could explain a bubble sort, but I got it all wrong. Programming will shorten my life, and the gravestone will have a syntax error.

So maybe I’ll make that ‘iPhone Torch’ app that’s a tenth of the quality of the worst of iStore but I will use because I WROTE IT (no I didn’t, I copied the code from an example and modified it in the hope I could make a 2900K version but settled for ‘white’). And even that will develop a memory leak and my once reliable iPhone will require a twice-weekly restart until I restore the thing from scratch.

So folks, ideas are cheap. Implementing them is really hard. Funding their implementation is extremely risky. Risk gets more reward than hard work. Hard work gets more reward than coming up with an idea. But coming up with an idea, working hard at it and backing it up at risk to yourself can be very successful… or not.

So I really hope we can take Maps to the next level. Not just super-maps, but something beyond abstracted wiggly lines. Even just a little quiet variable-pitch whistle that does the ‘warmer/colder’ childhood game to find your goal.

And no, that’s not my idea. Ian Flemming, Goldfinger, the book, not the film.

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