The big takeaway from Apple’s WWDC keynote earlier this week was that the company was doing all it could to upset Google. Siri’s jabs on Android, Scott Forstall’s comparison of iOS and Android update numbers, and of course the new Maps app in iOS 6, everything was Apple’s way of stepping up its rivalry with Google.
Apple’s in house mapping solution was almost three years in the making (Apple’s first mapping acquisition was Placebase in July 2009), and it has a huge upfront task of not just matching the quality of Google maps but in fact being much better than it.
Competing against Google’s mapping data is a really tough task. The search giant’s mapping service dates back to 2004, when Google acquired a company that eventually turned into Google Maps. Over these eight years Google has put in a lot of resources into gathering a huge amount of data about locations all around the world. This included deploying cars with cameras to capture street level imagery, partnering with local authorities to provide up-to-date transit information, and in some cases also sniffing data off open WiFi networks.
Apple’s going to replace all of Google’s mapping database with its own in iOS 6. How will that affect end users?
For starters, at least until sometime, users would have to deal with maps that aren’t as detailed as the ones Google provides. There have been many screenshots posted on Twitter comparing the Apple’s Maps in iOS 6 with Google Maps, and its really easy to point out the better one. This is after Apple’s three mapping related acquisitions and partnerships with more than 15 mapping companies including TomTom and Waze.
Gizmodo also has a detailed side-by-side image comparison of Apple’s maps and Google’s, some of which we’ve embedded below:
Besides there have been some major goof ups in Apple’s maps, where oceans have been labelled wrongly, as pointed out by Gizmodo.
(click to view larger version)
Though Apple shipped the new Maps app with turn-by-turn navigation, they miss out on an important feature many people like to rely on — transit directions. Apple’s relying on third party developers for that:
When building Maps, we looked around and realized the best transit apps for metros, for hiking, for biking, are coming from our developers. And so instead of trying to develop those ourselves, we are going to integrate and feature and promote your apps for transit right within the Maps app in iOS 6.
And how is Apple going to do this? By exposing APIs of course. According to Apple Insider, this is how it’ll work:
[R]elease notes accompanying the first developer beta of iOS 6 describe how apps without their own map support have an easier way to launch the Maps application and display directions or points of interest.
“Apps that offer routing information, such as turn-by-turn navigation services, can now register as a routing app and make those services available to the entire system,” the release notes explain.
“Registering as a routing app gives you more opportunities to get your app in front of users. Routing apps are not limited to just driving or walking directions. Routing apps can also include apps that provide directions for the user’s favorite bicycle or hiking trail, for air routes, and for subway or other public transportation lines.”
This is a really neat way of making up for the lack of data. Users would most likely require transit data specific to only a few locations, making targeted apps a much better solution than a global one, at least as long as there isn’t enough data with Apple.
Apart from detail related issues, Apple’s Maps app excels in every other aspect. Its tight control over the whole software stack helps it integrate Maps much better with other components in iOS like Siri. Yelp integration is useful for local searches in select countries. And the maps themselves look really nice as compared to Google’s. The 3D view is stunning, the vector based rendering engine would shrink the data consumed by the app, and the turn-by-turn navigation are a welcome addition.
Sadly, the detail level in Maps is of prime importance, all the other features being secondary enhancements. Apple’s Maps app also doesn’t have the Street view feature, which is one of the popular features of the current Maps app and as our reader – Louis tell us is a deal breaker for him.
To Apple’s credit, it has got at least three months to improve its data base, which you can say is in beta as of now, before public release. It won’t be an easy task, though, to achieve the same level of detail as Google Maps across most of the globe.
Google’s also announced that it would be releasing its own mapping application in the App Store soon (if Apple approves it, that is) which would have similar features along with the detailed imagery we have all been familiar with.
The competition between Apple and Google on the mapping front would finally ensure that end users are not held ransom to internal disagreements between two companies, and that they’re delivered the best possible mapping experience.
See also: iOS 6 Maps walk-through.