Apple Maps is looking better than ever, but it still has a long way to go
Earlier this summer, Apple announced a host of changes to its Maps app as part of the upcoming iOS 13 update. Now that the new operating system is finally here, the tech giant is beginning to gradually roll out those changes in the US. It started with California and Texas, and, as of this week, now includes the US Northeast.
Some of the new features are on par with what Google Maps offers, while others still lag behind. For example, Apple Maps offers detailed transit directions in just 10 major cities now and 17 countries, which, while incredibly useful, pales in comparison to Google, which has transit directions in thousands of cities and towns around the world. There’s a new feature called “Look Around” that lets you — you guessed it! — look around a real-world location. It’s basically like Google’s Street View, but again, less comprehensive.
Another new feature allows you to share your real-time ETA with friends. And it’s now easier to group together favorite spots and frequently visited locations. There’s an emphasis on privacy, too: Apple used machine learning to blur out faces of passersby and license plates and even their reflections.
Let’s set aside the obvious comparisons, though, and talk about aesthetics. The new Apple Maps just looks way better. The first thing you notice is the greenery. The previously drab beige appearance has been replaced with a map that is more topographically and ecologically accurate. Buildings have more depth and detail, and the images in the Look Around feature are crisp, high resolution, and look way more true to life.
Apple first released its Maps app in September 2012 as a replacement for the Google-supplied maps that have been standard on the iPhone since it debuted in 2007. But problems emerged almost immediately, with many users quickly discovering that Apple Maps lacked much of the detail of Google Maps. Transit directions were incomplete, landmarks were mislabeled, and the app’s “Flyover” feature displayed images that were highly distorted. Amid the bungled rollout, at least one manager was fired.
The big redesign started slowly in 2018 with Apple rolling out an updated, data-rich portion of its Maps with iOS 12. Maps look significantly better, but they only covered 3.1 percent of the US, focused on Northern California. (Vegetation was touted as a highlight last year, too.)
With iOS 13, Apple is continuing to atone for the mistakes of the past, and it’s doing that by reinvesting in the infrastructure needed to make an exceptional mapping service. Apple used hundreds of cars and planes with cameras and LIDAR sensors to gather data, driving 4 million miles, and adding hundreds more every day.
Aerial images, in particular, were useful in rebuilding the app’s previously buggy “Flyover” feature that provides AR-style, bird’s-eye views of major cities. Apple says Flyover is now available in 350 cities around the world.
Real-time transit information is a nice addition, including live departure times, outages, and cancellations for public transit systems, such as New York City’s MTA, Amtrak, ferries, and more. But Apple will need to step up its transit integration if it wants to stay competitive — not just with Google but also with Uber and Lyft, which have made major strides in recent months to add transit details in their respective apps.
Apple Maps will now give more natural-sounding directions, thanks to Siri. Instead of saying, “In 1,000 feet, turn left,” Siri says, “turn left at the next traffic light.” These new natural language directions are available in New York City starting today, September 30th. Indoor maps for 500 airports and malls are available as well.
It’s early days still for Apple Maps, but the product’s certainly looking much better. Of course, if Apple wants to persuade users to switch from Google or Waze, all it needs to do is pick up the pace and finish mapping the rest of the world. Then we’ll have a real maps battle on our hands.