Apple Maps' worldview is now better than Google Maps'

Apple Maps' worldview is now better than Google Maps'

Summary: It had its share of problems, but Apple Maps is back with a vengeance. Powered by some jaw-dropping 3D graphics and enjoying an aggressive multi-platform strategy, Apple is finally set to redefine our geospatial expectations – and take Google down a few notches.

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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.

Some questioned whether including Maps in the operating system was a simply gratuitous nod to the increasing incursion of iOS user-interface tropes into the desktop Mac OS X environment.

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.

AppleMaps-Sydney
Easy and default access to Apple Maps will redefine users' expectations of mapping no matter how good Google's offerings. Screenshot: David Braue

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.

AppleMaps-NYC-Met
Improvements in Apple Maps have made it beautiful, useful – and, more importantly, more accurate than ever. Screenshot: David Braue

 

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?

Topics: Apple, Education, After Hours, Software, Operating Systems, Mobility, iPad, iPhone, iOS, Google, Emerging Tech, Apps, Google Apps

About

Australia’s first-world economy relies on first-rate IT and telecommunications innovation. David Braue, an award-winning IT journalist and former Macworld editor, covers its challenges, successes and lessons learned as it uses ICT to assert its leadership in the developing Asia-Pacific region – and strengthen its reputation on the world stage.

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93 comments
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  • Then where is the accuracy? The interaction?

    Apple maps still gives me wrong data for west LA, no public transport info, my biking, no interaction for travel (forget just plain maps) and ......

    Mapping for devices is far beyond just a 3D roadmap.
    They are improving. But.....
    rhonin
    • Apple's Worldview was always quite cool, but....

      It's Apple's normal-map view that was always the problem.

      There is not enough detail on Apple's maps. As 'dawasi' says (above), directions are often wrong. Maybe Apple will catch up one day, but it will take many, many years.

      Apple's biggest problem is that its current business model of selling devices is flawed. It's OS percentage will shrink. Apple needs more online services, such as Maps, and its own search engine too, which it is no doubt secretly working on.

      Oh, and your trans-Pacific pipes would work much faster if you didn't allow the NSA to sift through everything that goes through them.
      Vbitrate
      • The NSA doesn't need their permission.

        Go NSA! Also if the author was really trying to be complete Nokia here maps should be mentioned. It's far and away the leader. Covers more than apple and google combined.
        Johnny Vegas
        • Nokia here maps???

          Really?! I had a nokia 620 for 4 months and i used the here maps 3 or four times tops - all it's good for is finding out what's near you... Not where those things are. A woaful replacement to the pre windows days of nokia maps
          MarknWill
          • How long ago was that?

            I've used, and relied on, Nokia Here maps for quite a while now and I live in little old New Zealand! When you're in the middle of no where and you're relying completely on the voice turn by turn navigation in Here Maps and it doesn't miss a beat, it's great! I would heartily recommend Here maps to anyone wanting to get from Point A to Point B as easily as possible.
            ursulus
          • If you couln't map it, you were doing something wrong with Nokia Here

            I doubt that the Nokia program was the problem. I use it frequently on my Lumia 920 and am impressed with how it works. I prefer it to Google Maps.
            rollguy
          • The USA may be an exception...

            ... to the overall good quality of Nokia Here maps, perhaps because it's never been a traditionally strong Nokia market. Just like ursulus in New Zealand, Nokia maps in India are also super-accurate and very frequently updated.

            In the urban mess of Bombay (Mumbai) where I live, Nokia maps somehow manage to provide very current information even about temporary roads built for the duration of say, a new bridge project (temporary becomes permanent eventually, but that's another story).
            jaykayess
      • Exaggeration, ignorance or lie?

        "Not enough detail" - Absolutely not true. Apple by default shows clearer and more info than Google Maps.
        "Often Wrong" - You need to give some detail here. When going to an address apple maps are as accurate or more accurate than Google.
        DougPetrosky
        • Oh please

          Not EVEN close near where I live. Here try this:

          1) 1951 NW 185th Ave 97124. In Apple the pin isn't even in the right place and what should be at that address you don't even see. Now try Google. Look at that detail for that area, Apple is not even in the ballpark here.

          2) 17993 SW Lower Boones Ferry Road 97224. What does Apple say is there? A Shell gas station... in the middle of an empty field. Pull up the satellite view, yes that really is an empty field there. Space age Fuel? Not even there, it's about a half mile away across I-5. Carquest? WTH! No it's not there either. Good luck finding gas there with Apple maps, and the gas stations that are nearby are not even listed.

          Now Apple may be better in a few places I have yet to see but don't call people liars unless you know FOR A FACT it is better everywhere.
          oncall
          • Afraid that one say Apple catch up

            Try not to speak too soon, I believe the problem is due to the server farms, when Apple have enough their web services will be much much better.

            Yes one day they will catch up and then a lunch of crows will be great.
            AdanC
          • No not afraid at all

            Annoyed really. I have to use Google maps when I need proper guidance. I cannot trust Apple maps, it is obviously flawed now, there is no "too soon" about it. Speaking too soon would have been BEFORE IT WAS FORCED ON APPLE'S USERS such as myself, not a year later. If it is obviously wrong in my own backyard there is no way I can use it while travelling, where I really need it.

            It was not sold as a product that "may someday be accurate enough to actally use without getting directed to a building 4 blocks from where your restaurant actually is" (yes that actually happened to me). The crow to be eaten is to be eaten by Apple.
            oncall
          • Apple Maps - etc...

            Apple could have handled the Maps issue better, yet Google forced their hand (or visa/versa). You could always use Google maps via web on an iOS device - you could NOT upgrade to iOS 6, if you had an older device - or not buy new hardware (since those would come with iOS 6 by default).

            Personally, Apple Maps has worked well for me. Apple maps was and is not perfect, but when I traveled from DC to TX last December, I had no issues at all and the turn/by/turn was helpful.

            In the end, because Apple did what it did, Apple Maps and Google Maps are better on iOS... and Google/Android is not (AFAIK) mining your data - like they wanted to do.
            Bee Ryan
          • Nice call

            It's good the way you outline a specific problem and not try to generalize like most people do. This way there's no room for BS.
            Steffen Jobbs
          • Another room for bs

            Maybe you're the sound of this bs.
            Raleigh Brecht
          • Princeton Area

            My experience differs. A friend recently had to submit an update to Google Maps. Following Google Maps to his home would have put you two doors down at the wrong home . Apple Maps, however, had it exactly correct.
            khurtwilliams@...
        • Detail?

          OK, in both, head for Sacramento, CA, and do a search for "Cherry Island Soccer Complex"

          Apple Maps puts it in the middle of a residential block with no park anywhere near.
          Google Maps puts it 11 miles away, where it actually is.

          Just the other morning, I had to help a family that was lost and getting frantic trying to get their kids to a soccer tournament using Apple maps on an iPhone.
          wygit
          • Just tried it, both Apple and Google placed it correctly

            I live in Sac too and both my son and daughter have played many games at Cherry.

            I just tried both Apple and Google and they both showed the fields where they actually belong.

            I searched on Cherry Island Soccer
            psquared007
          • Did my own search in Apple maps

            I just did the search in Apple maps and keep getting the residential neighborhood version whether I call it "complex" or not. Not that you are incorrect but that two people could search the exact same phrase in the same apple maps program and get two completely different destinations speaks volumes doesn't it?

            Of course this is the crux of my dissatisfaction with Apple on this issue. Apple is continuing to build pretty fluff on top of a bad database. Some of the errors I pointed out above I sent to Apple several months ago. That they haven't fixed it means one of two things: They aren't fixing things users are submitting or they have too many errors to fix. Meanwhile one can only guess how many millions Apple is spending doing drone fly-overs to impress people who don't care if their map programs actually gets then to where they need to go, money that should be spent repairing the database.
            oncall
          • ahhhhh

            I just checked again, and if I zoom in to Antelope and search, I get the right one.
            If I'm zoomed on Sacramento and search, (which, since I live in Midtown, is my home page) I get the Midtown one.
            If I zoom out and search, I get two flags, with the info box on the Midtown one.

            Weird.

            Thanks for checking.
            wygit
        • OK

          Haven't checked this week, but as of last week (before Thanksgiving) Apple Maps had my house in the middle of the Mississippi River. Yes, I live in a town that borders the Mississippi River but I live about 5 miles from the river itself. Nice to know family with Apple devices using Apple Maps will have to drive about 100 yards into the river where there's no bridge just to get to my house in order to enjoy a nice turkey dinner.
          benched42