The public release of iOS6 for iPhone and other iDevices has stirred a storm of protest about the failings of the new Apple Maps app, and a storm of indignation from the fanbois that anything Apple does could be anything short of perfect.
Apple seems to have got itself into a sticky situation by ditching (or being ditched by) Google maps, but whoeover chose to break up the beautiful relationship, Cupertino’s hubris has met its nemesis in just blithely assuming they could throw together a good maps app, and rely on their tame press followers to drown out any complaints.
Let’s look at the details.
Maps need to work everywhere
The Apple maps demos in California have been very impressive. But lots of people also live in the rest of North America, Europe, Asia or Africa. Not all of them interest Apple because they don’t have enough money to buy iThings, but a lot of them do.
Maps are data intensive
Google has learned this over the years as it has built up its map solution. Google is a data company, and maps are at heart data with geo-information. Google have spent a lot of money on building up their map data. They are focusing on local search and so this is strategic for them. This week has just proved how high the barriers to entry in the map market presently are, and what a good strategic play Google have made.
While Apple has gone to what lengths it can to buy in alternative map data from Tomtom, Yell, or whatever they can lay their hands on, they just can’t be expected to build as effective a mapping product from a standing start in 3 years.
Maps are used in a lot of different ways
Back in the day, Tomtom built a business selling maps embedded in Linux boxes that people stuck to their car windscreens. They identified a key niche market of maps, motoring directions. The Smartphone revolution has allowed maps to work their way into a lot of less lucrative niches:
Offline map data for wilderness travel and international travel
Public transport directions
Exploring and visualising
Some of the criticism of Apple’s maps focuses on the absence of Google Streetview, and the brokenness of the public transport directions, two niches which Google has expanded into organically. More recently Guardian Bike Blog and London Cyclist have panned Google’s move into cycling directions, in comparison with the incumbent UK cycling route planner, CycleStreets. I should declare an interest here, as the developer of the 1.0 CycleStreets iPhone app. But the parallel is clear, CycleStreets (and many OSM volunteers) have invested a lot of time building a good database for cycle routing, and Google cannot just come in and expect to equal it.
Apple has come up with some good ideas in its maps, out of necessity. Third party apps can register as routing providers for Apple’s maps, helping out Apple to fill the feature gaps in return for promotion of the app within the appstore. Already a flood of providers is popping up, and we will have to see how this plays out. Perhaps Apple will make a few acquisitions from the companies that have come knocking on their door. Apple’s user focus polish and better raw underlying data would make a strong combination.
And Apple has had the foresight to base their maps on vector technology, which is a more flexible and efficient solution as the rendering power in the client iDevices continues to skyrocket. Although this is something that Google can easily match when it releases its eagerly anticipated standalone iOS maps app.
When the furore has died down, wise heads may prevail at Apple and insist that the company knuckles down to making the investment to improve their maps; this is all about data gathering and validation rather than sexy flyover videos.
Options for Users
Right now though, if you must have iOS6/iPhone5, and you use some of the Google map features that Apple can’t match, where should you go ? You can stick on iOS5 for a while if you’re not getting the new phone, but Apple is always very keen to move its user base to the latest OS version, and tech happy users wouldn’t have it any other way.
You could wait for the inevitable Google Maps app, though Apple will certainly try to be as obstructive as they reasonably can.
So consider your needs and look at what third party apps can do the job for you. And beware that those apps built using the Apple MapKit will automatically use the new Apple maps. That’s a lot of apps.
- Cyclist in the UK should try CycleStreets or the excellent BikeHub Journey Planner which uses CycleStreets routing and adds a lot of polished satnav features. Both of these use OpenStreetMap maps.
- Motorists could try Skobbler. Again, it is based on OpenStreetMap.
- Walkers, explorers and mapheads in the UK could explore using UK Map which lets you download UK Ordnance Survey 1:25000 and 1:10000 maps with good stuff like contours. These are the free variants using OS OpenData, but for many purposes they are good enough to brilliant, and this is a very polished app.
Finally, explore the app store and the web and see what you find. I’d love for folks to let me know of any radical or clever map apps out there that I’ve missed.