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Tuesday, September 25, 2012, 01:09 pm PT (04:09 pm ET)

Inside iOS 6: What's wrong with Apple's new Maps

Apple's new Maps in iOS 6 certainly has some significant flaws, but its real problems have been overshadowed by a small number of reports calling attention to minor glitches that are relatively insignificant.

There are multiple components to Apple's new iOS 6 Maps: the iOS app itself, including its user interface and APIs; the cloud service providing 2D maps and satellite/aerial imagery that Apple has assembled under in a series of licensing deals and customized for its own use; the 3D modeling Apple has commissioned to create standard 3D mode and Flyover (currently limited to specific areas); the directions and live traffic information used to provide driving and walking directions; and the integration with third parties that Apple is leaning on to provide missing elements such as transit maps and local search.

What's wrong with iOS 6 Maps: The App



Looking at the current status of Maps, it's pretty easy to identify the errors that are being discussed. Most of these are not really intrinsic to the design of the Maps app itself, which is (unsurprisingly) very similar in layout and functionality to Apple's original Maps app.

There are two significant features that are missing in the new Maps app however: Google's Street View and Transit directions. Flyover provides a partial alternative to Street View, but it's not available in nearly as many areas (currently it is limited primarily to select, larger urban U.S. areas).

Because Google's web Street View is implemented via Adobe Flash, there isn't currently any way to access it from iOS 6. So if you're outside the limited coverage of Flyover, your only real option to preview a particular destination is to download Google Earth (which provides a lower quality alternative to Flyover but with more coverage) or another third party app or website providing similar birds-eye views.

Apple could have conceptually addressed this by releasing a secondary or helper app to pull up Street View of a given location. However, the story of Google Maps and iOS 6 isn't limited to Apple seeking to complete with Google, as is described later in our historical overview of the two companies' maps.

Google is now charging users of its Maps service, meaning that to offer Street View, Apple would have to ink a licensing deal, likely with unpleasant terms, given the circumstances. So Apple isn't the only party that took action to remove Street View from iOS Maps.

There are three solutions to the missing Transit directions. The first is maps.google.com, the web version of Google Maps. In addition to transit directions, it will also provide Google's flavor of driving directions, walking directions, and biking routes, something that iOS hasn't every natively provided. The web app version is not fun nor very easy to use, however, and suffers in many usability respects for being a web app. It also doesn't show traffic.

[Correction: Google's live traffic information is available through the web app, through enabling it as an optional layer, as reader @Tom tweeted.]



The second solution to getting transit directions is to use an existing third party app such as the excellent Routesy. The third solution is Apple's primary one: wait for third parties to release integration with iOS 6's new routing APIs, where the app adds new features to Maps by simply advising iOS of its capabilities and what geographies it covers.

It initially seemed that Apple should have taken more initiative to make sure there were at least some helper apps available at launch. Fortunately, there are now a lot of apps showing up to offer directions. When you enter a start and end point in Maps and hit the transit button for directions, iOS now pulls up a series of apps that can help.



If you've already installed one of these helper apps, you can pick which of the installed apps you'd like to use. Each specifies the type of routing it knows how to calculate: bus, bike, car, subway, train, ferry, pedestrian and so on.



I tried a couple of different transit apps for San Francisco, including Transit and City Maps, each of which offered its own style of directions, from graphical instructions overlaid on the map to detailed procedural directions.







I also tried out the novel SideCar, a real-time ride sharing service that lets you request a nearby driver (in general, or somebody specific) to take you to your location, with an estimated cost and the kind of car they're driving.



Apple's market based solution to providing the type and style of directions you personally prefer (leaving the door wide open for innovative new types of rides and directions) seems like a huge improvement over the hardwired link to Google's often inaccurate transit information. Curiously, it seems to be the "free and open" advocates who are grumbling about this change.