I meant to write this piece yesterday, but events conspired against me doing so. And today I'm wondering whether it's worth writing a comparison of the turn-by-turn navigation features on Google Maps for iPhone and iOS 6 Maps at all.
You see, the problem is that "Google Maps v iOS 6 Maps" is perhaps the most unfair fight in the history of the technology industry. What you have on one side is an inebriated, sloth who's having a particularly lazy day. On the other side you have Godzilla, who's in a bad mood because he's caught his wife sharing flirty texts with King Kong. There's no drama here, no cut and trust of two well-matched competitors. Google Maps squashes iOS 6 Maps without even being aware that it's doing so.
Personally, I didn't have too much of a problem with iOS 6 Maps. I was expecting an unmitigated disaster when I upgraded to iOS 6, but in the areas I used it iOS 6 maps successfully rendered roads and other things roughly where they were actually positioned in space. But I did discover the beauty of having turn-by-turn directions on my phone. Although I'd used turn-by-turn on a mobile for a bit during the brief period where I owned a Lumia 800, since 2003 I've used a dedicated satnav unit in the car. About a day after I first used turn-by-turn on iOS 6 Maps, I took the satnav out of the car and resolved to sell it on eBay.
The maps on Google Maps are clearer, and that's probably enough in and of itself for Google to win the fight. You're supposed to be driving a car. iOS 6 Maps are "information-poor" -- it's basically a white space with some roads rendered on it where the roads are. Google Maps renders much more subtle information that mirrors the physical space that the driver is in. Google actually does cartography. I'm not at all sure what Apple's mapping software people are doing. Plotting points on a map isn't cartography.
Here's two screenshots of the same tricky turn on a road in the UK. What's happening here is that there's a dual carriageway, but the median between the two carriageways is full up with mature trees. The Google Maps image gives you more of an indication that there's greenery. All the iOS 6 Maps one is doing is telling you that there are some roads. With the iOS 6 Maps one there's a bias towards you having personal pre-knowledge of the area that you're driving through. Google Maps assumes that you don't know where you are. Google Maps also renders roads in the correct colour. This sort of road in the UK is signposted using green colouring, which Google Maps uses. For UK users, iOS 6 Maps look like they're obsessed with everything being a motorway (which happen to be blue).
Another thing that Google Maps will do is allow you to fiddle with the map view during navigation. Oftentimes you can be in a situation where you have two possible routes home and you know one is filled up with traffic and the other relatively clear. You might want to inquire whether the system is routing you through the one without traffic. In this screenshot all I had to do was pull over, twiddle with the maps to see that it was taking me on the route to the right rather than the more straight-on route. (I happened to know the straight-on route was rammed with traffic.) On iOS 6 Maps you can do this, but it's more fussy.
That's why Google wins this fight. One glance from that fantastically clear rendering and you know what's going on and you can park the phone back in your mental periphery and get on with your day. Turn-by-turn directions on iOS 6 Maps is fussier to use and has maps which are substantially less clear. Perhaps counter-intuitively, it's a lack of information that makes them less clear.
There are some other points too. iOS 6 Maps uses the phone's onboard speakers for directions. When you plug the phone into your aux port on your car stereo it redirects the speakers to that. So if you're listening to the radio, you get no directions because the aux port is not active. Plus, when you're listening to audio from the phone itself, the situation gets stupid. Say you're listening to a podcast with a low recording level and the volume is cranked up. At this point when the directions are read out they are basically screamed at you. It's not pleasant.
Google Maps plays the directions through the Bluetooth interface in the car. This means it works when you're listening to the radio, and whatever you were listening to before gets nicely muted and the directions read out to you without yelling. It's much nicer.
All of these points tell us that not only does Google understand mapping, someone actually "dogfooded" this stuff before they released it. If you're trying to use your iPhone to get around in the car, Google Maps simply offers a better experience.
If we look back at the products, I find myself wanting to say that they are both as good as one another at the actual task of planning the route and guiding you through it. Then why the sloth v Godzilla simile above? I think it comes down to the fact that Google Maps is noticeably better in a way that makes iOS 6 Maps irrelevant. And it's this irrelevancy that deems it this future:
(Thanks to the parody Twitter account @ios6maps for that moment of comedy gold.)
And then you have to wonder where do we go next. I'll never use iOS 6 Maps again, not out of malice, but because there's no particular point to do so.
Well, until Google Maps makes some boneheaded move and manages to alienate its customer base. That's what makes living through this current phase of the technology industry's life so interesting. Before Apple mucked up iOS 6 Maps we took Google's mobile mapping stuff for granted. When it was reintroduced on the platform last week, the feel on Twitter was like some alien race had some down and gifted humanity with a compound that gave us all everlasting life. Apple's cackhanded rollout of their mobile mapping stuff has simply wrapped up and gifted the whole market to its erstwhile partner without any clear indication of exactly when Apple going to get a new opportunity to fight back on a more even footing.