It was one of the biggest tech headlines of the year in September,
Apple dropped its contract with Google, which had always supplied the
data for the iPhone's Maps app. For various strategic reasons, Apple
preferred to write a new app, based on a new database of the world that
Apple intended to assemble itself.
As everybody knows by now, Apple
got lost along the way. It was like a 22-car pileup. Timothy Cook,
Apple's chief executive, made a quick turn, publicly apologizing, firing
the executive responsible and vowing to fix Maps. For a company that
prides itself on flawless execution, it was quite a detour.
swirled that Google would create an iPhone app of its own, one that
would use its seven-year-old, far more polished database of the world.
That was true. Today, Google Maps for the iPhone has arrived. It's free, fast and fantastic.
there are two parts to a great maps app. There's the app itself - how
it looks, how it works, what the features are. In this regard, few
people complain about Apple's Maps app; it's beautiful, and its
navigation mode for drivers is clear, uncluttered and distraction-free.
then there's the hard part: the underlying data. Apple and Google have
each constructed staggeringly complex databases of the world and its
The recipe for both companies includes map data from
TomTom, satellite photography from a different source, real-time traffic
data from others, restaurant and store listings from still more
sources, and so on. In the end, Apple says that it incorporated data
from at least 24 different sources.
Those sources always include
errors, if only because the world constantly changes. Worse, those
sources sometimes disagree with one another. It takes years to fix the
problems and mesh these data sources together.
So the first great
thing about Google's new Maps is the underlying data. Hundreds of Google
employees have spent years hand-editing the maps, fixing the thousands
of errors that people report every day. (In the new app, you report a
mistake just by shaking the phone.) And since 2006, Google's Street View
vehicles have trawled 3,000 cities, photographing and confirming the
cartographical accuracy of five million miles of roads.
sense the new app's polish and intelligence the minute you enter your
first address; it's infinitely more understanding. When I type "200 W
79, NYC," Google Maps drops a pin right where it belongs: on the Upper
West Side of Manhattan.
Apple's Maps app, on the other hand, acts
positively drunk. It asks me to clarify: "Did you mean 200 Durham Road,
Madison, CT? Or 200 Madison Road, Durham, CT?"
then there's the navigation. Lots of iPhone owners report that they've
had no problem with Apple's driving instructions, and that's great. But
I've been idiotically misdirected a few times - and the trouble is, you
never know in advance. You wind up with a deep mistrust of the app
that's hard to shake. Google's directions weren't great in the app's
early days either, and they're still not always perfect. But after years
of polishing and corrections, they're right a lot more often.
must-have features are all here: spoken driving directions, color-coded
real-time traffic conditions, vector-based maps (smooth at any size).
But the new app also offers some incredibly powerful, useful features
that Apple's app lacks.
Street View, of course, lets you see a
photograph of a place, and even "walk" down the street in any direction.
Great for checking out a neighborhood before you go, scoping out the
parking situation or playing "you are there" when you read a news
Along with driving directions, Google Maps gives equal emphasis to walking directions and public transportation options.
feature is brilliantly done. Google Maps displays a clean, step-by-step
timeline of your entire public transportation adventure. If you ask for
a route from Westport, Conn., to the Empire State Building, the
timeline says: "4:27 pm, Board New Haven train toward Grand Central
Terminal." Then it shows you the names of the actual train stops you'll
pass. Then, "5:47 pm, Grand Central. Get off and walk 2 min." Then,
"5:57 pm, 33rd St: Board the #6 Lexington Avenue Local towards Brooklyn
Bridge." And so on.
Even if public transportation were all it did,
Google Maps would be one of the best apps ever. (Apple kicks you over
to other companies' apps for this information.)
points-of-interest database also excels. For example, if you look up a
restaurant, you can read the Zagat write-up, read customer reviews, read
the menu or even book reservations, right there on the info screen. For
100 restaurants, you can even see interior photos. A single button-tap
starts navigation to that restaurant. Compass Mode lets you hold the
phone in front of you; as you move it left, right, up and down, the
phone's view of place changes accordingly, letting you look all around.
It's wild. It's "The Matrix." It's visual teleportation.
has even managed to incorporate Google Earth, its zoomable photographic
model of the entire world and its oceans. You know, just in case you
want to know not just where a building is relative to Detroit, but
relative to the Mariana Trench.
It's a lot of features. The big question: How well did Google cram them in without sinking the app with featuritis?
it turns out, is the best news of all. The brand-new, completely
rethought design is slick, simple and coherent. Google admits that it's
even better than Google Maps for Android phones, which has accommodated
its evolving feature set mainly by piling on menus.
software conceit here is the horizontal swipe. Plotting a trip? Maps
shows possible routes on the map; a banner at the bottom summarizes the
current traffic and time to destination. Swipe the banner to see the
next proposed route.
Look up "Italian restaurants?" A banner shows
the ratings and average price for the first one; swipe to see the next
restaurant's details, and the next.
And when you're navigating,
the current driving instruction appears in a green banner; swipe it to
look ahead at the next instruction. (Apple's navigation mode doesn't
permit you to look as if you're looking down at the world from a plane,
the type sizes of place names contribute to the sense of perspective.
They get smaller as they get farther away.
So yes, Google Maps for iPhone is a home run. It is not, however, without its footnotes.
biggest thing you give up is Siri integration. If you say to your
iPhone, "Give me directions to the airport," Apple's Maps app opens
automatically, your course charted. It takes more steps to get started
in Google Maps.
And despite its superior design and fluidity, the
iPhone version of Google Maps doesn't have all of the features of the
Android version. It still doesn't let you download and store maps for
use when you don't have an Internet connection. It doesn't have indoor
maps (of shopping malls and airports, for example). And it doesn't have
ads or pop-up offers. (I know - boohoo, right?)
Google Maps runs fine on the iPad, it's just a blown-up version of the
iPhone version. There's not yet an iPad-specific app.
that goodies like those will be coming soon. But for a 1.0 app, created
in the space of only a few months, Google Maps for iPhone is an
astonishingly powerful, accurate, beautiful tool. For millions of iPhone
owners, it's a drive in the right direction.
© 2012, The New York Times News Service