Here & There #17 - Apple Takes a Hike

Here & There #17 - Apple Takes a Hike

This article was originally published in the Here & There newsletter by Kyle Frost. Here & There is now Mountain Gazette's weekly Thursday newsletter. 

Apple takes a hike

Last week, amongst a bunch of other interesting launches (satellite messaging, Apple Intelligence, etc), Apple announced that it’s adding trail maps and topographic data for 63 US National parks to Apple Maps (plus, route-building and offline downloads). The coverage was almost cursory, highlighting a few screenshots on mobile, and then referencing it again later in the presentation for macOS Sequoia. But, given my blend of interests, I latched on to this development.

The App of the Year last year was AllTrails, an app/website that most of you have probably either used or are at least aware of. Naturally, I latched onto this as an interesting juxtaposition for Apple and posted a tongue in cheek post on Threads.

Many responses were quick to decry Apple for “Sherlocking” AllTrails. Sherlocking is “the phenomenon of Apple releasing a feature that supplantes or obviates third-party software” (Wikipedia). While true, I’m less inclined to view this as malice, and more as an inevitable risk of software development. Jon Lax, formerly of the design consultancy Teehan + Lax, and more recently a VP of Product Design at Meta shared with me a thoughtful perspective that is more in line with my own thinking.

“If developers pick use cases near the P50 [average users], they benefit from serving the largest number of users but are at risk of being in the direct line of the platform's roadmap. They can also be a victim of their own success. If they build an experience that was intended for P90 [specialized] users only to have it become popular they effectively drive the use case into the P50 now making it ripe to be consumed by the platform.”

If you service a use case that is widely popular to “average” consumers, your feature set is increasingly likely to be integrated into a platform like Apple or Google – because those are the consumers they target the most. And who’s to fault them for building features that their user base wants/needs/uses?

Following that logic, it’s possible that Apple believes that the outdoor recreation industry has grown to an extent where it makes sense for them to be integrating trail-specific features. I'll be curious to see how this fits into Apple's overall platform strategy longer term. Despite this move I don’t expect a large impact on AllTrails (yet). The activity tracking/maps/trail space has a wide variety of consumer wants and needs, and allows for a blend of price point, niche feature sets, and brand association – some of which Apple can address, much of which they cannot (or will not).

The outdoor app ecosystem

The current ecosystem exists on a feature spectrum that I’ve roughly falls into four groups. Obviously, companies can span multiple segments, but (for me), these are the primary identifying characteristics of apps in the space.

Discovery and inspiration – Discovery apps help answer the question “what should I do?”, often factor heavily during the planning process of travel, and tend to place a focus on imagery and descriptive content. Often, consumers will use these apps for research and planning, but switch to other apps for maps/tracking/etc.

Activity tracking – These features are heavily focused on data and the nitty-gritty of actual activity tracking like heart rate, distance, elevation, and keeping track of your routes/progress over time. The ‘basic’ versions of this feature set is utilized primarily to make sure you’re going the right way.

Routing, mapping and GPX – These may have lots of additional features like map layers that you might not typically utilize, advanced route features, and a more complicated interface. CalTopo is a great example of a tool used heavily by ‘advanced’ backcountry enthusiasts, search and rescue teams, and more.

Social – There are many apps that integrate social features but few are truly “social”. Strava is arguably a social network first, and AllTrails has a massive community of people sharing reviews and photos, and reporting on trail conditions. Apps like Gaia GPS, OnX, and others, while sporting a similar feature set, don't have as robust of a community as AllTrails or Strava.

Caltopo - extremely useful, but intimidating and not that user friendly (call me 😄)

Apple's positioning

Apple is well positioned to tackle the activity tracking and route mapping features. New functionality will likely integrate routes with Apple Watch, and although Apple Maps isn’t the most well regarded, it will be a convenient way to utilize custom routes for the more than 100 million Apple Watch users. The “killer” feature might be offline maps…for free. Across most outdoor apps, downloading offline maps is used as an upgrade hook for paid subscriptions. It’s one of the main carrots to entice users to upgrade.

It’s hard to have a trail data moat in this space – the majority of trails are accessible via Open Street Maps, an open source service of trails, routes, roads, and more. And if Apple continues to put their foot on the gas, a fully realized trail database will eventually affect apps focused on basic discovery, activity tracking, and mapping (I don’t expect Apple to support more social features like photos/reviews/trail conditions, it’s not typically part of their focus).

But, Alltrails and others have unique features to offer. Alltrails supports live sharing of activities, print maps, activity-specific search, and has some of the best user-submitted photos and reviews (that discovery/inspiration feature set). OnX has focused heavily on “niche” user groups like hunters, off-roaders, and backcountry skiers. Strava, while being social-first, is slowly getting much better at the discovery aspect, and they have some of the most interesting data to utilize in that regard. No one is doing detailed map data as well as CalTopo. There are so many to choose from, if you want to align with a particular brand philosophy. GaiaGPS (Outside), Avenza Maps, the official NPS app, plus Komoot, HiiKER, and OutdoorActive in Europe, and more. And perhaps that's part of the problem. With a wealth of options that are...not that different, it's possible that cost and convenience win out over brand loyalty.

I would worry when Google enters the space. We’ve seen Google move into the travel space over the last decade, adding flights, hotel listings/availability, restaurants, and more. As Google added more features, online travel agencies (like TripAdvisor, Kayak, and more) have been forced to develop ways to build brand loyalty through subscriptions and loyalty programs – and they’re starting to feel the heat. “In an email exchange, Wells Fargo Managing Director Brian Fitzgerald told Skift that heightened competition from Google Hotels and Flights, which attract users at the beginning of their travel searches, is a major factor weighing on Tripadvisor and Trivago.” (Skift). Any moves by Google could be devastating for discovery and route apps, pulling millions of users who are already deep in the Google ecosystem (that cost/convenience I mentioned earlier) – plus, they’ve done a better job on the social side of photos and reviews.

Overall, it’s an interesting development that I’ll be watching closely, and additionally a tremendous validation of the growth and size of the outdoor recreation industry. That Apple is even dipping its toes into the space speaks volumes about the trend in hiking’s popularity – both for good, and for bad.