This article is an excerpt from TNW’s full review of Apple’s iOS 6.
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Efforts like Apple acquiring a small but innovative maps company Placebase in 2009, snagging Google Earth competitor Poly9 in 2010 and 3D mapping company C3 Technologies and admitting that it was gathering anonymous data for an ‘improved traffic service’ in 2011, that it would be able to offer iPhone users within the ‘next couple of years’.
Then it was discovered earlier this year that Apple had its very own map tile server, the core of any potential mapping service. With a simple code change, and a new set of tile images that are more detailed, Apple was ready to replace Google as its mapping provider overnight.
And then it did. With iOS 6, Apple has replaced Google with its own version of the Maps app.
To say that this was an ambitious, risky or even foolhardy endeavor is understating it massively.
Google has spent years collecting enormous amounts of data for what has become one of its flagship products. There really isn’t a single mapping provider out there that can rival the sheer volume of information that Google offers all in one place. The Google Maps app for Android is pretty great, and even though the iOS app was crippled due to restrictions put on it by Apple, it was still pretty darn good.
Remember, too, that no matter how much money Apple has in the bank, it’s still got the same amount of time available to it as any other company. The only way that it can amplify that time is through strategic purposes that save it grunt work and by increasing the man hours by staffing up.
That’s why Apple has been making those mapping purchases and, over the past couple of years, has swelled its ranks by thousands of engineers as it has stepped up its efforts to ship a substantial mobile OS and a desktop OS update every year.
With iOS 6, it’s clear that a huge amount of those finite resources were used to craft Maps. It’s not perfect, and it’s not as good as Google Maps in many ways, but it’s a solid first effort that probably won’t hinder most casual users.
Why Its Own Maps App?
One of the major reasons that we know doing away with Google Maps on iOS is a philosophical choice as much as it is one of practicality is that Apple didn’t simply choose to create its own mapping tiles and front-end and stick with Google’s data. Instead, it has taken on the mammoth undertaking of merging third-party data and integrating it with its own to create its own data as well as its own front-facing maps.
With Google Maps, Apple never had access to Google’s turn-by-turn as it would have had to make concessions it wasn’t willing to make. Giving more access to user location data via Google’s Latitude service was reportedly one sticking point. This was probably not a matter of user protection but of the value of that data. Since a huge amount of Google’s mobile map usage happened on iOS devices, there was a huge cache of information that was untamable to Google and Apple wanted to keep it that way.
In order to push its mapping solution forward, offering turn-by-turn navigation and doubtless other features in the future, it had a choice. It could either work with another third party to build a maps app, or it could build its own.
Whatever exit conditions Apple struck with Google for maps, it’s not done with it quite yet, as older versions of iOS will continue to use Google Maps. So there are still licensing deals in place to cover that. That being said, Apple’s benefits from a typically steep upgrade curve due to device support and the new over-the-air upgrade procedures. Within a few weeks of iOS 5.1’s release, over 75% of all iOS device users were already upgraded. So there will quickly be more iOS device users utilizing Apple’s maps than there are using Google Maps.
And all of that user data is staying with Apple, including searches, points of interest, GPS location and traffic information and more.
Apple’s maps utilize a nearly identical API to the one provided in previous versions of iOS. This means that developers have to alter very little to get their apps working properly with Maps in iOS 6. So any app that you use on iOS 6 with maps should work just fine right out of the box.
Apple launching its own maps does mean that it gets to share location data back and forth with other iOS services like Siri more fully and do other things with it that sticking with Google never would have let it do.
For instance, when you’re using the turn-by-turn feature, you can pop open Siri and ask what the nearest car wash or gas station is, and you’ll get a list of them that are along your route.
Apple Maps vs. Google Maps
The early beta versions of Maps were very, very sparse. They were almost a sketch of general city outlines rather than a detailed map. The example image below was compiled by French student Laurent Guyot (via 9to5Mac) over the course of beta 1–3, and I’ve added a comparison shot from the GM release.
You can see the continuous improvements that the maps have undergone as far as complexity and density of data. Just like Google, Apple is sourcing its data from a variety of third parties as well as doing some of its own first-party gathering.
Google, however, has a huge leg up in first party information gathering, with its many Google Maps contractors and employees worldwide, as well as fleets of vehicles gathering StreetView data, something that Apple isn’t even yet providing. And Google’s efforts aren’t due to its computational prowess, it’s from a dedication to putting people in the field in StreetView cars and in dedicated departments like its Ground Truth division that relentlessly pursue embedding data into its maps.
Google doesn’t provide a list of its external data sources, but Apple actually does via a link in its Maps app.
From that link, we know that Apple has licensed data from a variety of third-party providers (many of whom likely overlap with Google):
- TomTom (who in turn licenses a massive amount of local data)
- Increment P Corp.
- MapData Services Ltd.
- MDA Information Systems
- Urban Mapping
- Flickr Shapefiles
- Royal Mail
- The Commonwealth of Australia
- TIGER (US Gov.)
- US Geological Survey
Apple certainly has plenty of money to keep striking mapping deals, so it will likely catch up on the third-party data fairly quickly. But Google has an immense infrastructure already built up around gathering its own first-hand information, none of which will be available to Apple. This means that the ability of Apple to increase the accuracy and usefulness of its maps is going to depend largely on it keeping up a concerted effort to gather its own data and iterate quickly when it comes to accuracy. I’d count on a fairly large expansion of Apple’s mapping departments over the next couple of years as it staffs up to keep up with the pace.
The maps, however, do look pretty fantastic. They’re nicer visually than Google’s maps on iOS, which had a relatively aging aesthetic. Apple’s maps are all generated by vector, rather than chunks of bitmap images. This is a technique that Google introduced to Maps for Android back in 2010, and it results in better visuals at various magnification levels, especially when zoomed in or out quickly. It also increases transition speed between zoom levels, as they can be generated based on data rather than having to be loaded in image form.
Apple’s maps are also dynamic, which means that when using things like the ‘heading’ mode, which leverages compass data to figure out which way you’re pointed, the map will re-orient based on which direction you’re facing. This includes labels, which will rotate freely so that you can always read them, no matter which way you’re facing. The maps in iOS 5 were static images that could not re-orient labels. Google does something similar on Android maps.
That comes in handy when you rotate maps using multitouch, which is a very nice and natural-feeling action in iOS Maps. Pinching all the way out in zoom levels brings you to a globe of the earth. This smooth transition all the way from street level to earth-level was likely enabled by the technology of Apple acquisition Poly 9.
Apple says it has included 100M business listings in Maps, all with Yelp reviews and pictures right in the app via ‘information cards’. In earlier versions of the beta, Apple seemed to be using Google’s local info alongside, but if you look at the results in the screenshots, you can see that this doesn’t seem to be the case now.
The results seem to be built almost entirely off of Yelp, though the wording of its announcements indicates that it has ‘other sources’ of local data as well. This leads to a bit of sparseness surrounding local search results.
Google’s local efforts have been a mixed bag, sometimes brilliant, sometimes not so much. But that’s why they recently purchased both Frommers and Zagat. The latter deal was spearheaded by former Google local head Marisa Mayer, now CEO of Yahoo. Integrating Frommers and Zagat, as well as flight information from ITA may help Google to compete with other local companies.
Apple’s integration with Yelp puts them on decent footing, but still behind Google in this area. It’s not totally useless, though, as Yelp’s database is decent, if flawed by the fact that you can only search by a few categories of data.
It’s also bound to be a nice boost for Yelp. Twitter got a huge jump in signups from integration into iOS and Yelp’s is even more robust. If users tap on a Yelp enabled location, they can choose to launch it in the Yelp app for more information and it will prompt them to download it if it’s not installed. This should skyrocket installs and engagement for Yelp.
That traffic service that Apple referred to back in 2011 makes an appearance in Maps as well. The data for this service is pulled from traffic systems as well as anonymous real-time data from iPhones using Maps and location services. In addition to road conditions which show up as dotted warning lines, you also get ‘alerts’ like road closures, construction or accidents. Remember that you have to activate the traffic view to see them, but the alerts will come regardless.
Traffic ties into the navigation system Apple provides, offering to re-route you on the fly if it will save you time due to traffic conditions.
I’ve been testing Apple’s turn-by-turn navigation since the early beta editions. It’s pretty darn good for a first effort and its super gorgeous, with lots of little design touches that make it easier to read and use than Google Navigation. But it ends up getting betrayed now and then by Apple’s lack of experience and carefully curated location data.
I’ve used the navigation on several road trips of a couple hundred miles or more and several smaller jaunts in town and it’s generally spot on. The speed compares easily to Google Navigation as well. I did some side-by-side tripping with a Galaxy Nexus and an iPhone 4S both on Verizon’s LTE network and maps loaded perfectly on both sides, with the iPhone keeping up with the Nexus just fine as far as routing, re-routing after deviation and reporting turns.
Maps delivers just the right amount of verbal prompts without spamming you and it seems to give them at the appropriate distance given your speed and proximity to your next change in direction. It’s quite solid…as long as it knows where it’s going.
In my long-distance testing it never missed a beat when it came to exits, onramps, exchanges and more. But in-town it did come up with some oddities related to mapping data that had it instructing me, in some cases, to turn left when I needed to go right. Placing you on the street near a shopping center destination is to be expected, but urging you to turn in the complete opposite direction when you’re about to reach your destination could be fairly irritating to disastrous if you’re in an unfamiliar city.
You can initiate directions in a few different ways including a stock two-point direction system that works very much like any other navigation system you’ve used. Apple pre-fills the start with your current location but you can remove that so that you can get a route between two points that are not where you are.
The second way is through Siri. Just open Siri and say ‘take me to x’ and it will drop a route into Maps to that destination from your current location. As with other Siri services, it needs to be a location it recognizes like a business name or something in your contacts already (like home, if it’s your address). Siri will also now use Yelp data and the general location database to find locations for you. For fun, you can also ask Siri what your ETA is by saying “are we there yet?.”
The quick-route button appears next to any searched-for location right on the maps screen. Just tap the icon to get a quick navigation route in between where you are and where you need to go. This is similar to Google’s ‘Directions’ button, but is more visually intuitive. Tapping on the search bar gives you a pre-filled ‘from here to home’ route.
The green sign visuals are clever and make thematic sense, but they’re also done really well in transit, with each street getting a 3D pop-up sign that you can clearly relate to your current position and are much easier to read than Google Navigation’s flat black street names that fade into the surrounding streets all too easily.
I do like that the ETA is given in the menu bar and is easily accessible with a single tap, but I wish it stayed up on the screen throughout navigation automatically. This is the way that Google Navigation works, and I’m not sure why a small popup wasn’t added to give that info ‘at a glance’.
In early versions of iOS 6 the timing of the voice commands was very poorly done. It would end up with long pauses or mute the music long before it needed to be but thankfully, that has been fixed in the latest beta.
Because Apple allows Maps to run in the background, you can use it in any application and the next direction in the route will appear as a small bar across the top. This is similar to the ‘in call’ bar or or blue hotspot bar. This is handy if you’re the navigator for your driver but want to pop out to text something while still keeping an eye on the next route. The voice prompts will still come in as well.
This includes the lock screen as well, which works out really well at night. If you lock your phone the navigation will continue, but the screen will go dark. This lets you get voice prompts and temporary screen prompts only when there are changes in direction. At night, this lets you retain your night vision without a bright screen shining in your face and distracting you. It’s a clever bit of work and it’s probably the way I’d recommend you use navigation at any time just to minimize distraction.
As I mentioned above, you can tap Siri at any point along your route to find you a restaurant or gas station or any other POI. The results seem to be roughly decent, straying a couple of miles away from your route, but no more. This can be handy if you’re looking for a pit stop location on long road trips.
I wish that I could give Apple’s navigation a complete pass, but the best I can do is say that it is very, very good and probably executed better than any non-GPS unit and better than most of those as well. TomTom is providing the turn-by-turn in Apple’s Maps and it’s a relatively recent entrant into the navigation game, so that could be why its coverage suffers.
Unfortunately I can’t recommend that you use Maps for navigation without reservation as there are some very visible holes in Apple’s mapping data. As the images above show, it is definitely filling these in, but they still do exist. Which is too bad, really, because the rest of the experience is top-notch.
Navigation works with the iPhone 4S and iPhone 5, iPad 2 and new iPad and iPod touch 4th generation only. This is likely a horsepower issue, but also a Siri one, as the voice assistant is integrated tightly into Apple’s Maps.
Flyover is Neat, but no StreetView
In addition to a new vector-based set of surface maps, Apple has also ginned up a network of 3D enabled cities that it has mapped with a fleet of airplanes and helicopters. These cities are then presented as wireframe 3D models in the standard map views, or as fully skinned Flyover experiences in the full satellite view.
Actually, a lot of the work to get this working was done by mapping company C3 technologies, who Apple acquired late last year. There was clearly a concerted effort to get this integrated into Maps to use as a ‘wow’ feature, and it certainly plays that way. If you’re in a city that has been mapped, zooming and panning around it can get addictive, as it’s really well done. There are only a couple dozen cities enabled currently, but major ones include London, San Francisco, Rome, Barcelona and more.
The detail level is very, very good overall and C3’s technology allows for interpolation of greenery and other organic areas, making those areas look significantly better than the 3D maps Google has in its Earth product so far. The maps are cleaned up by removing vehicles and most people using an algorithm that compares images taken and deletes them from the view. There are still ghost-like cars in some areas.
If you’re in an area that has Flyover capability, the icon in the lower left of the Maps app will change from 3D to a set of blue skyscrapers. Just slide two fingers up and down to adjust your angle or twist them to rotate your view.
But, as good as Flyover is, it’s not going to replace Google’s StreetView for getting around a city using landmarks or making your bearings on the ground. The immense amount of work Google has put into gathering that data has paid off big. That said, there are other providers of ‘street view’ data out there, so Apple’s likely looking into those already.
Flyover and 3D maps are only available on the iPhone 4S, iPad 2 and 5th gen iPod touch or later.
One of the big pain points for people has been the removal of transit directions from Apple’s Maps app. Apple has pitched it as a way for people to get more detailed or simply better transit apps from third-party developers, and I tend to agree.
As I said back in June, there is no simple bucket of data that companies like Apple and Google, or independent developers for that matter, can hook up to in order to populate their apps with transit data. It’s a complex operation that takes time and effort. Apple felt that leaving this to third-parties, at least for now, would allow for a better experience for users, and the mapping developers I’ve spoken to so far are pretty excited about this idea. So we’ll just have to wait and see at this point.
When you’re in an area and you enter a location, you can still tap the Transit button, but instead of getting directions right away, you’re given a choice of apps that work in your area. The apps will start out with those you have installed and then run down a list of the ones you don’t yet have.
Developers can specify the regions that their apps are related to using a simple outlined area, during their app submission process. That should allow you to get a list of apps for your area rather than a random list of all transit apps. We’ll see how much this gets abused.
If you have an app installed, you can tap the ‘Route’ button and your direction information (provided the developer has done their job correctly) will be passed to the app. This means a minimum of re-entering data. The app should be able to process your route and deliver you directions all on that single launch tap.
In theory, it’s all relatively painless. I haven’t been able to try out any Transit apps with this new region set up, and Apple only just started accepting submissions…but I’d expect to see at least a few on day one. Notably, if developers give no region at all, their apps will appear in the list, just below the ones that are applicable to your area.
Lots of People Are Losing Maps Features
One of the big downsides to being such a relative newcomer, despite making extensive deals for mapping data, is the international availability of Maps services. The stock Apple Maps and their satellite data will work in just about any country where Apple products are sold worldwide (but not all of them), but the various components that make it up have more limited availability.
Directions are available in far fewer countries, though most of the majors are there, and turn-by-turn is available in 56. Nine more countries are getting navigation as of October, so Apple’s definitely working on it, but it’s still not there yet.
Business reviews and photos are in only 15 countries and Traffic in 22. 3D maps (while technically being available worldwide) are only listed as up in the USA, where there are over two dozen cities currently covered.
Michael DeGusta put up some shocking statistics surrounding who loses what last night and they’re a punch to the gut for international users of Apple products. Many people , only some of which are Apple customers of course, are losing access to StreetView Traffic or Transit, or a combination thereof on iOS devices.
The biggest losers? Brazil, India, Taiwan and Thailand, all of which lose Transit apps, Traffic and StreetView. They also don’t have turn-by-turn navigation or any Flyover cities. 20 more countries are losing traffic data and/or Transit apps and are getting no turn-by-turn back.
You can check out DeGusta’s post for more information about which countries get the worst of it or check Apple’s availability chart for yourself here.
Maps with a Question Mark
On the whole, the Maps app is a very good initial effort. There are a bunch of features, some standard and some best-in-class, but all executed with typical Apple panache. But its coverage is still well behind Google’s and probably will be for some time.
It’s not just that Google has been doing this for a long time, either. It has been doing it for a long time with a lot of people and it’s going to take some sincere expansion on Apple’s part to come up with a mapping solution that doesn’t just get but, but truly shines.
At this point, it’s anyones game when it comes to maps on the iPhone, and Google seems to be perfectly poised to drop an official Maps app for the iPhone. Remember too, though, that all third-party apps that call on maps will get Apple’s now, instead of Google’s. This means that Google will also have the opportunity to release an iOS SDK to let developers build their maps into the apps directly. Waze, OpenStreetMaps and MapBox already offer alternatives to developers for maps, but Google would certainly be a welcome alternative.
So, at least for now, Apple should be pretty pleased with the interface. But the data just isn’t there and an enormous amount of people around the world are losing StreetView, Traffic and Transit information. Aside from turn-by-turn and the beautiful interface, it’s a huge downgrade from Google Maps, and an enormous risk for Apple. We’ll see how it pays off.