It may have struggled with some quite high-profile errors in its early days, but Apple's latest improvements to its Apple Maps platform have not only helped it catch up with venerable geospatial giant Google – but will make Apple Maps far more relevant in the long term.
Those are harsh and difficult words from someone who, like all of us, has marvelled for years at the utility of the Google Maps Web service and the immersive worldwide journeys made possible through the Google Earth application. But they are a reality that bears addressing.
Google will always hold the significant achievement of bringing the literally world-changing geospatial technology to the mass market, but Apple's decision to incorporate its now-very-impressive Maps application into its Mavericks operating system reflects a significant change in the user experience that will give it far more clout in driving the standard for interactive consumer mapping into the future.
Anyone so inclined should run up a full-screen instance of Maps on their 27-inch iMac, using Apple's Magic Trackpad to spin, zoom and fly through 3D renderings of cities around the world. It's a novelty on an iPhone, but on a 27-inch screen it's literally an adventure.
Sure, you can do much the same with Google Earth, which has been available for Macs for some time. Both will also help you find your way to new places pinpoint accuracy, exploring a broad range of maps.
Maps is uniquely important in markets such as education, where maps are an everyday part of learning (and not just in geography). As today's iPad and MacBook-wielding students become more and more accustomed to Apple Maps, they will come to believe that it is how all maps should look – and will question anything else they encounter.
In the long term, however, the overall quality and ubiquity of the Mavericks-era Maps application is going to make it the default go-to platform for most Mac users– just as it has become the default mapping app for an increasing number of iPhone and iPad users since Apple began substituting it for Google Maps.
I fully recognise that Mavericks' market share in the scheme of things is relatively small, so it will take a while before Apple Maps dominates the world.
That said, Maps is uniquely important in markets such as education, where maps are an everyday part of learning (and not just in geography) and the ability to pull up and zoom through the maps students are discussing is invaluable.
As today's iPad and MacBook-wielding students become more and more accustomed to Apple Maps, they will come to believe that it is how all maps should look – and will question anything else they encounter.
That's where Apple's vision will have really paid off – as it has already done by seeding iPads in schools to win over tablet users early in their lives.
Mavericks' long-term play: Mapping as a service
This lies at the crux of Apple's decision to move Maps into Mavericks: the company has effectively staked its claim in the idea of what I might call Mapping as a Service (MaaS).
This is the concept of providing a consistent technology platform between desktops and mobile devices that will allow applications to just assume that a certain degree of mapping capability is available with a single tap. Rather than being an optional addon, geospatial capabilities become an intrinsic part of the user experience.
Sure, Google Maps and Google Earth offer many of the same features (I should also mention Bing Maps for completeness even though it's rare as hen's teeth outside the US). It's still correct to say that Google Maps owns the Web-based MaaS world in applications where flexibility and detail count.
But if those tools are no longer the go-to platform for mapping – and most users won't know or care about their capabilities if Apple Maps is doing the trick and beautifully so – Apple Maps will come to dominate this MaaS idea by doing what Apple does: redefining it.
From now on, the operating system will simply assume access to detailed, glorious maps is available as a core service. This means they'll be able to use OS calls to provide interactive mapping that is tightly bound to the application at hand – rather than forcing applications to jump into a Web browser for maps because there's no guarantee Google Earth is installed on a particular user's desktop.
Applications have to play to the lowest common denominator – and if the assumption is that there is no built-in mapping service on the target operating system, the application will either lose those features or find some inevitably-kludgy workaround.
This is where Google falls short: although its applications are capable, they are not bundled into mainstream operating systems in consistent ways. They may work well on both desktop and mobile devices, but people are by nature lazy and most will be more than happy with the default mapping solution on their devices rather than having to seek out and learn to use a new one.
Even Google's recent overhaul of Google Maps may fail to compete against a good-enough default option, for the same reason. Google's efforts at mapping the inside of buildings, the surface of the moon and anything anybody wants to map are certainly impressive – but if its tools aren't an intrinsic part of users' worldview, they will struggle to be more than marginally relevant.
The new problem with Apple Maps
There are problems in the fact that Apple Maps now looks so good and works so well.
First and foremost among these is the dependence on an image-serving infrastructure that – at least in Australia, where smooth access to such services relies on adequately uncongested trans-Pacific pipes – can often feel overloaded and make maps slow to appear and resolve to high resolution. I can only assume Apple will have learned its lesson from its early missteps, and continues to add capacity to prevent this from being a persistent problem.
More problematic in the long term is the fact that Google's history of basically inventing this market means that Google Earth and its highly-expandable structure – made possible through its Keyhole Markup Language (KML) – long ago made it the platform of choice for serious maps users wanting to represent information in many ways. A raft of ancillary tools, like Google's SketchUp, allow users to customise Google Maps in a range of ways.
Apple doesn't yet support KML in Maps, which limits users to seeing only the views of the world that Apple wants them to see. This will be grating for many users, but perfectly fine for many others. But if Apple wants Maps to be taken seriously in the future, it will need to figure out a way to either join the KML brigade – and to do it well enough that it's seen as more than a gorgeous toy – or, and this is the outcome I fear more, come up with its own data framework to compete with Google's.
Apple does this sort of thing all the time, and it could probably work well in the long term – especially since it would build on a MaaS platform that will be available on every Mac from now on. But in the short term, it would feed user confusion as Apple tried to shoehorn its format alongside KML and users discovered the hard way just how well (or not) the company had succeeded. It would also isolate the Mac OS X and iOS-based MaaS experience from those on other platforms.
Would users mind? Not as much as you think.
This is all esoterica compared to the use that most people have for Maps, which pretty much range from finding directions (now as possible on the desktop as on the in-car smartphone-cum-GPS-replacement) to gloriously barnstorming some foreign city in full-screen, immersive glory. Once they come to expect these capabilities are available no matter what device they're using, they will baulk at a worldview that offers anything less – or less easily.
What do you think? Are you still having problems with Apple Maps? Is its inclusion in Mavericks a good or bad thing? And: can Google meaningfully fight off its incursion given Apple Maps' increasing profile on mobile devices and Google's inability to deliver MaaS capabilities to compete?