When Apple launched iOS 6, reactions were mixed at best. Many of the marquee features — passbook, Siri improvements, and Facebook integration, for example — fell flat, and many users appeared more concerned with what had been removed, rather than added — namely, the final and almost complete expungement of Google’s influence from all built in Apple apps.
While the removal of the native YouTube app was no major loss, and easily remedied, the removal of Google as built in maps provider was met with a little more resistance.
Instead of extending their relationship with Google, or partnering with another provider like Bing or Nokia Maps, Apple decided that they would instead build their own lean, mean mapping service to rival all others.
After acquiring multiple mapping companies, and purchasing mapping data from other well respected parties, such as TomTom and Waze, Apple’s service seemed like it had the legs to deliver. However, launch issues abounded and the service was heavily panned for mistakes throughout the maps, from minor hilarities to very major misplaced, misidentified or just missing roads, towns, cities, and in some cases even countries.
Though the new vector based map tiles were unquestionably beautiful and responsive, turn-by-turn directions were undoubtedly a much needed addition, and features like Flyover were unbelievably cool — at least when they worked, anyway — the errors just seemed to overshadow anything good in this release.
I had heard that Apple had made significant improvements since the launch, but my own experiences had been less than stellar, and I had been using the excellent and free Navfree and Waze apps for most of my navigation needs since iOS 6 launched.
So it was with some trepidation that I ventured into London yesterday-a largely unknown city for me-armed only with Apple maps, and a prayer.
See, Waze and NavFree are great apps, but are both designed for driving. I was not, instead relying in the main on my own two feet, and — Google maps notwithstanding — had yet to discover another service which offered reliable walking directions, which didn’t scream at me to turn around in one way streets, or go berserk when I attempted to take a short-cut through a park or alleyway.
I had actually attempted the same journey, from London’s Euston train station to the Booksellers Association, around a half-an-hour walk away around six months previously, so had the vaguest inclination as to where I was headed. But at that time, Google maps had initially lead me well astray, giving me three different locations depending on whether I had searched for the “Booksellers Association”, the address, or the postcode, and only street view finally allowed me to identify the correct location of the three.
Knowing that I had a little time to play with, google’s web-based maps to fall back on, and in a worst case scenario, the Hail-O taxi app should I get completely lost, I set out. And boy did the app deliver. The very first thing that struck me was just how clear the maps, and directions were. The vector based map tiles were infinitely clearer than anything I had previously experienced in Google. They zoomed seamlessly, adding relevant street names seemingly as I needed to know them. Compared with the busy google maps, and impossibly overcrowded openstreetmap data used by NavFree, Apple’s maps seemed considered and deliberate.
No major landmarks were missing from the map, which was very useful for getting my barings when GPS accuracy was a little off — a not uncommon occurance in built up cities — but neither were they overcrowded or confusing. The 3D buildings on the standard maps also helped me identify my surroundings when things were unclear, and flyover proved to be a more than adequate replacement for streetview, where it was available, for identify that I was indeed heading in the right direction, when Apple’s maps suggested short cuts and alleyways completely absent from Google’s maps.
Unlike Google maps six months prior, Apple’s implementation successfully identified that taking the path’s through several parks was in fact quicker than walking around them, and even had flyover data for these, which allowed me to confirm that cutting straight across the grass, and between some trees would lead me to an exit even closer to my destination.
For comparrison, I used the Google maps web app on my way back, and the journey took a full 6 minutes longer, taking me the same way it did six months prior, and missing multiple shortcuts which Apple’s maps had identified for me.
Though perhaps subjective, I found Apple’s maps had more relevant point of interest data for me, and that it was generally more accurate — Apple, having taken a lot of flack for this in the early days of maps have clearly placed a heavy emphasis on correcting these mistakes, at least for larger cities.
I did not run into any obvious errors while visiting the city, though this is hardly surprising for the nation’s capital, though was somewhat surprised to discover that flyover information seemed to be missing for some major parts of the city, and just seemed to end arbitrarily at times.
The lack of built in public transport information has been criticised by many, but here too, Google had failed me last year, whereas Apple’s suggestions for third party public transport tools were helpful, and provided much more detailed, useful and accurate information than Google did.
Satellite imaging had been heavily criticised early in the app’s life cycle, with major parts of the UK, and numerous other countries, reduced to a blocky grey/green mess where once had been streets and buildings-indeed, my own town had almost no useful satellite images at launch-however this too seems greatly improved. I periodically opened the maps application on my train journey home, and even in the most remote of areas, Apple appear to have aquired detailed satellite imagery. I was pleased to discover, upon my return home, that, according to Apple, I once again owned a house, rather than a large dark green pixel.
I am certain Apple maps are still not perfect. I am sure that errors still abound, and other parts of the country, or world, have not yet seen the drastic improvements that those areas I was exploring have. Yet one thing is clear, Apple are improving things, and rapidly.
In the few short months since it’s launch, the app has gone from crippled and nearly useless to a much more useful application than even Google maps, at least for my limited requirement yesterday.
If Apple can continue that rate of development and improvement, Apple’s maps app looks set to become one of the best, all round mapping tools available on any platform, and given Google, Microsoft and Nokia’s multiple-year head start in this field, that is really saying something.
In the last 24 hours, I have removed the hefty NavFree app from my iPhone to free up some space, so impressed have I been with Apple’s maps. And while I still think I prefer the social aspect of Waze for driving, I will certainly once again be using the built in mapping app for just about anything else. Well done Apple, keep up the good work.