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

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


Apple isn't slavishly copying Google



Comparing static images of iOS 6 Maps against the familiar Google Maps isn't very useful because the two go about providing information differently. Google puts more labels on the map because its labels are actually part of the pre-rendered map tiles, so you can't see anything else until you zoom in enough to hit a new layer of detail, which usually requires downloading a second set of map tiles.

Apple, in contrast, shows street, station, park, landmark and other label details dynamically, so when you zoom out you see outlines of where things are, and when you zoom in you see the details. This happens quickly and without needing to download new data, so Apple's approach results in a minimal, uncluttered look that some reviewers have mistaken for simply offering less information.

Apple's new vector based maps mean you can navigate around using GPS on the map, and stray further from mobile service than you can with Google's all-or-nothing map images in iOS 5 and earlier.

This Google map of Shinjuku Park in Tokyo shows every subway station and lots of other details, while an Apple map at the same zoom level shows nearly nothing but neighborhood labels. But that makes sense because when zoomed out that far, I really just want to find the general area names.




Once I know what I'm looking at, I can zoom in and see more detail, including building and block outlines. The vast Shinjuku Station emerges from a blank area to show a much more useful layout of the area than Google Maps' one flat image does, but you'd only really know that if you were familiar with the area.

Looking at a familiar Google map next to a Spartan zoom level from iOS 6 Maps doesn't really tell you anything, apart from the fact that somebody is setting up a false comparison.




You can also put Apple's map into perspective view and rotate it in any direction, another handy feature in Japan, where public maps rarely point north. If you're comparing a Japanese information sign with Google Maps, trying to orient both in the same direction is a lot harder.



At the same time, while the structure and features of Apple's Maps are smarter, the detail information is not. I found (and reported) a series of incorrect place names, and I've only briefly visited the area once.

Additionally, in some cases Google shows more useful details, such as in assigning Tokyo's various subway stations logos that match the different systems that use them. There's not just one metro operator. This is also the case in San Francisco. Examples like this show that Apple has plenty of nuance to add to its map product, literally a world full of details.

Google still superior at search



Apple also seems to lack the same sophistication in suggestions that Google offers when you type a name in wrong. iOS 6 isn't the first time Apple has messed up something related to maps. International travelers have long dealt with iOS appending an incorrect country to contacts, for no apparent reason. Try searching for an address in another country on any map server after Contacts has decided to append "United States" to the end of it.

Apple looks up place names for phone numbers, so it should be able to cross reference zip codes and other clues to deduce the correct country when searching. Similar errors can occur when looking up an address in a specific state.

Apple built extensive geolocation and reverse lookup features for iPhoto just to organize pictures, so it should be at least a little better at figuring out where things are than it appears to be in the new Maps. But again, these are problems that can be solved in the cloud by massaging the data, not inherent flaws in Map's technical foundation.

Additionally, note that in all of these cases of map quality, location search or directions, one can always also consult Google's web app if necessary, making all the chatter of a maps-apocalypse particularly silly.

It seems like it will be a lot easier for Apple to fix place name details and international address locations than for competitors to woo away Maps users with a cartography app that does everything Apple's new one can. What Google, Microsoft and other map vendors will deliver next remains to be seen, but Apple's injection of fresh thinking in Maps is nothing but good for competition.