So much negative press has come out against the new Maps app, and many users have commented that they wish to downgrade back to iOS 5.1.1, it seemed logical to delay upgrading my iPhone 4S to iOS 6 for as long as possible. However, at the statrt of the week, more objective and comprehensive tests emerged that seem to show less variance between the Apple map data and Google maps, so I decided to take the plunge and have used the new Maps app all week.
At first, Google Maps seemed like science fiction, because there was never anything like Google Maps before. Yes, there were monolithic maps that were simple ports from static map data. These web maps tracked slowly, were ugly and lacked detail. Thus Google, with satellite data, with street view, with accurate business information, with relatively fast scaling and panning, and the ability to save and create custom maps, absolutely revolutionised computerised maps. This was all “free”. Of course, with the Google advert tax. But amazing at first and at second look as well. It generated great goodwill for Google. Many’s the time that we have commented on how Google Maps has changed the world. GMaps impact isn’t as great as the search engine (and the Maps have clearly been helped a great deal by the search technology) but their influence can’t be understated.
But is Google Maps perfect? Far from it. It’s worth to note some common experiences with the original Maps app, and Google Maps in general. Navigating in Berlin about 2 km from our home (we ended up in a completely barren brownfield site, about a kilometre from our target- I submitted a correction) or in rural Poland (we ended up in the middle of a field, 8km away from our target). Part of the problem is that Google tries always to give an answer, and doesn’t like to admit that it doesn’t have high confidence in its answer. Live transit information in New York was amazing with Google Maps on the iPhone. A truly immersive experience, thrilling integration of live and static information. But this wasn’t available in Berlin, and not in most cities.
So it is important to establish the true baseline to compare Apple’s Maps against. People have come to rely on Google Maps, and metropolitan USA has been well catered for. When Google Maps has failed, we have always been quite forgiving. There’s also not been any credible alternative, and it was “free”.
Until now. The launch of Apple’s Maps in iOS6 is a serious challenge to Google. Firstly, as astute observers have noticed, this is a battle for live data. Google has been sucking down all kinds of live data from users of its maps, and using this to continually improve the maps themselves. Google will now notice a reduction in data influx, if iOS users switch in large numbers. Which they will. The Apple Maps are free from ads, they are also beautiful.
Are the new Apple Maps themselves any good? It’s well documented that they have faults. In fact, it’s surprising how good the Apple Map data is. Can the faults be rectified? Of course, and over time they will be. Using out-of-date data on an in-car SatNav last month led us onto new roads that were off the map, and towards fields, underlining that errors are a general problem of mapping a dynamic planet. But the Maps app itself seems very good and has several key advantages over the old Google Maps-powered version. Google Maps was made in a pre-mobile era, before touch, and Apple’s implementation takes the vector route which is a perfect companion to the tactile control of multi-touch. Even on an iPhone 4S, the experience is much smoother than on Android.
The flyover view is unbelievably good. It is jaw-droppingly incredible. You can see amazing detail and interact with a city in real space – the motion is smooth and easy to control. It certainly drinks down data. Even on Wi-Fi, tilewise updates are not instant. I’ve never used Google Street View much. It helps little with navigation, and it’s clunky, even on a desktop with Gigabit ethernet. In Germany, parts of the street view are opted-out. For example, the neighbouring house in our street isn’t shown – it’s fuzzy. To navigate, you want a bird’s-eye view, with pan and tilt – which Maps provides, at least in some cities. The detail, accuracy and sheer beauty of the flyover views can be seen in these two views of the TV-Tower in Alexanderplatz (looking SW). It’s pure entertainment, as well as a useful and novel solution to the ad hoc navigation problem.
Turn by turn navigation looks excellent, quite superior over the dodgy Citroen SatNav and again, beautiful. Recommended routes that I asked for were accurate, but locations were not always found on the first go. No different from Google. Siri can also now give me directions in English, even though we are in Germany. This is a major feature boost.
Transit is handled gracefully with third party providers. Berlin FahrInfo is a mature app from the VBB (Berlin and Brandenburg public transport group) that gives live information on S-Bahn, U-Bahn, trams and buses, and integrates it relatively smoothly with the Maps application. It would be nice to be able to set a geo-locked default: when I am in Berlin, use FahrInfo. In cities where such apps are available, this experience is superior to the old Maps app, which simply abdicated from providing the relevant info.
In conclusion, there are not glaring errors in Apple’s Map data on every corner. The furore over Apple Maps seems overblown. The Maps app is beautiful and will, before long, surpass Google Maps in terms of quality and usability. Google is now the one playing catch up – it’s maps have stagnated. Apple has a huge war chest, and has now released a scalable mobile map architecture that can rapidly improve, and accommodate new features. Before long, this will be the best experience in mapping. A canonical move from Apple – throw out the whole thing and start over – in order to make a quantum leap and to obtain consistency of design and implementation. Hysterical critics are desperate to find a chink in Apple’s armour. This isn’t it.