Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
By Edward C. Baig, USA TODAY
Did Apple take a wrong turn?
Apple may be getting high praise (including from me) for the iPhone 5 and the OS 6 software it runs on. But critics have been slamming Apple's new iOS 6 Maps app, saying it is inferior to the Google Maps app that it replaces. "The more people use it, the better it will get," Apple says.
"We launched this new map service knowing that it is a major initiative and we are just getting started with it," Apple spokeswoman Trudy Muller says. "We appreciate all of the customer feedback and are working hard to make the customer experience even better."
I had a more positive experience testing the app in New York and San Francisco then some other pundits did. Apple's Maps are attractive and easy to follow. I didn't run into the general weirdness and inaccuracies that have caused a ruckus online-notably complaints of mislabeled or missing landmarks and cities.
But not all is peachy either, and when it comes to Maps, give Google the advantage. I'm not pleased that the public transportation routing feature that had been available in the old Google Maps app for the iPhone is not included in the Maps app that Apple delivers with iOS 6, at least directly. You can still get those directions for buses and trains through third party options that pop up when you request such routing through the new app. For example, when I asked for transit directions from my midtown Manhattan office to a building on the Upper West Side, more than two-dozen app options appeared, most of them free but some that will cost you a subway ride or two.
It's also too bad that the new Maps app lacks the "Street Views" Google had provided. Others have pointed to fewer listings for points of interest, stores and restaurants in the databases Apple is using compared to its rival.
To be sure, there's enough evidence out there to validate the complaints. And some of the slams are coming from as far away as "across the pond." BBC News, for example, wrote that users "reported missing local places, such as schools, or strange locations" and provided a screenshot that "showed a furniture museum that was apparently located in a river."
Some of the data Apple uses is supplied by TomTom, which also feeds some mapping information for RIM, HTC, Samsung, AOL (MapQuest Mobile), and yes, Google. I sometimes rely on TomTom's own iOS app for navigation.
TomTom's Lea Armstrong says, "When people use a map, their experience is determined by two things. Firstly, the underlying content, notably the maps. This is what TomTom is currently supplying the mobile industry with and it is what gives their maps the best foundation. Secondly, user experience is determined by adding additional features to the map application, such as visual imagery. This is typically defined and created by the handset manufacturers and third party software providers on the basis of their own vision and needs."
In other words, don't blame us.
On the plus side for iPhone users, Apple's Maps app now provide the kind of spoken turn-by-turn directions that Google kept out of the iOS version of Google Maps. You can request those directions on the iPhone just by asking Siri (e.g., "How do I get to the United Nations?") Google has long provided audible directions for Android devices. Indeed, tech is an especially tricky business sometimes. Companies may want to preserve the best stuff for their own preferred devices-thus Google reserving audible navigation for Android handsets, not the iPhone-while still providing a decent, if not optimal, experience on competitive devices. It 's a fine line.
For now the search giant hasn't released a separate Google Maps app that iPhone loyalists might fetch in Apple's App Store and it won't explicitly say whether it will. Things aren't exactly warm and fuzzy between Google and Apple these days, as also evidenced by Apple recently removing You Tube from its core stable of preloaded iPhone apps.
Google's spokesman Nate Tyler told me in an e-mail, "We believe Google Maps are the most comprehensive, accurate and easy-to-use maps in the world. Our goal is to make Google Maps available to everyone who wants to use it, regardless of device, browser, or operating system."
When it comes to the new iPhone 5, Google Maps is out and Apple's own newly designed Maps app is in. And with it comes spoken turn-by-turn navigation, which had been previously been available on the iPhone only through third party apps. Google has been offering the audible navigation for free on Android devices for quite some time. The feature had been AWOL on Google Maps for iPhone.
Apple's new Maps app, which also arrives on older iPhones (and iPads) through the iOS 6 software upgrade being made available for free today, did indeed get me from one destination to another during my drives in New York and San Francisco, and isn't that the point?. Of course, it didn't always get me there via my preferred route, though to be fair that's been true of most every GPS-capable Map I've employed through the years.
Green signposts appear on the iPhone screen to guide you on your way; the spoken instructions on iPhone 5 were generally clear and easy to follow. You can display the distance and ETA of your destination, a feature commonly available on other map systems. And Apple has added a very neat 3D "Flyover" feature for certain cities that lets you zoom in on landmarks and skyscrapers. Alas it's not quite a substitute for the useful Street View on Google Maps.
I also miss the routing that had been supplied on Google Maps that tells you how to get someplace via public transportation. My hope and expectation is that Apple will get around to adding these or similar features--pardon the pun--down the road.
You can watch me here demonstrating iOS 6 Maps on iPhone 5 in the City by the Bay.