Wednesday, October 03, 2012, 10:00 am PT (01:00 pm ET)
In-depth Review: Apple's iOS 6 Maps & the alternatives
Google's web app
Apple's new native Maps replaces the former version in iOS 5 that was powered by Google, but Google's mapping service is still available to iOS 6 users via its web site: maps.google.com. In addition to Google's own web app, there are third party native apps that provide access to other maps data proprietary to Google, such as the company's Transit routing (or Street View, as noted above).
As a side note, Google Earth has been available as a native iOS app for some time, but it doesn't work as a general purpose replacement for Maps. At best, it is comparable to Apple's Flyover feature, with more widespread coverage but older and more outdated images that are generally of poorer quality.
Google is expected to port at least most of the functionality of its native Android app to iOS, likely incorporating 3D visualization features from Earth, but it hasn't provided an intended release schedule. In the interim, Google plans to update its existing web app to provide Street View in the near future.
In our testing, Google's web app had some serious usability and reliability problems, frequently failing to load graphical map layers (below), refusing to properly refresh, and generally failing at inopportune times.
It is a serious downgrade from Apple's iOS 5 native Maps experience, but still provides some information that is not available in iOS 6's new native app: Google traffic, satellite and local search information, as well as the company's routing directions for driving, walking, bikes and transit. A detailed review of its usefulness in each of these respects follows.
Nokia's web app
Nokia also provides free web access to its mapping service at maps.nokia.com, which while not as visually attractive as Apple's own (and a bit drab compared to Google's), consistently offers what appears to be the most sophisticated and accurate traffic routing of all the products we tried.
Nokia's mobile web maps also don't look quite as sharp as its native Nokia Maps and Drive apps for Windows Phone devices (which additionally provide turn by turn voice guided driving directions, offline maps and indoor maps), but the free site still seemed to work reliably on iOS, even if the interface feels less than familiar. Nokia's web app provides live traffic, standard maps and satellite images, local search and routes for driving, walking and transit.
Nokia also has a 3D map visualization feature similar to Apple's Flyover or Google Earth, but it relies upon web plugins to use, so it isn't available on iOS (it can be used on OS X however; it appears to be more detailed and up to date than Earth but less so than Flyover, which is only visible from iOS 6).
Issues with web apps
Both Google and Nokia's web-only services are significantly limited by their use of the web to deliver maps. This is the same issue that caused Facebook to recently announce that it had wasted years of efforts on what its chief executive Mark Zuckerberg called "the biggest mistake we made as a company" of trying to leverage HTML5 to deliver a cross platform mobile app rather than pursuing development of custom, native apps from the start.
Native apps are more responsive and scale on the screen better than web apps can, both of which are particularly important to a mapping service. Both Google and Nokia's web apps for mapping only resize to certain zoom levels, unlike the companies' native apps for their own platforms (Android and Windows Phone, respectively), which are much closer in performance to Apple's own native app on iOS.
Web apps also can't be used at all when offline, so if you have intermittent data service, you may lose your map entirely and be unable to reload it, another serious disadvantage of relying upon web-based map services.
The web was designed to be "stateless," so for a web app to remember your settings between visits (or searches), it has to resort to saving cookies or other tricks, often with poor results. This contributes toward delivering a poor map experience too, as every time you visit one of these web apps, they seem to want to reset all your settings (such as turning off information layers) but at the same time, automatically fill in your old search targets.
Nokia's web app, for example, seems to default back to walking directions (which include going the "wrong" way on one way streets) while Google turns off traffic every time you access it. Those are probably the worst possible defaults for each site.
A fourth major downside to web apps is that they can't provide GPS-style turn by turn instructions that can recalculate your path if you miss a turn. If you obtain your driving directions from a web site and you run into a street closure or illegal turn (which wasn't uncommon in our testing), you have to manually find your way out of the situation. With real turn by turn, if you see the suggested turn is wrong or unsafe (or you miss it), you can just keep driving and the system will provide you with an new alternative course.
Nokia appears unlikely to release a native version of its app for iOS anytime in the near future, but Google is clearly working hard to deliver a native app for iOS users. That task is complicated by the fact that while Google's mapping service currently has strong advantages over Apple's own iOS 6 Maps, it is also clearly deficient in a number of important respects, as we will outline later.
Apple's daunting competitive challenge in maps
Criticism of Apple's new iOS 6 Maps has often contrasted it with the previous, Google-derived Maps in iOS 5. However, Apple wasn't hoping to just improve upon iOS 5 Maps. The company simply could not afford to just maintain feature parity with its previous product; it needed to do far more than just improve upon it.
Maps can be used for a number of tasks, but the main feature set Apple has targeted in its premier release of its own Maps in iOS 6 is a package of features that attempt to compete, not against iOS 5's Google-based maps, but against Google's more advanced Maps+Navigation product that has been exclusive to Android since 2009.
The comparison above is a basic feature overview showing the how much Apple had to do to make Maps competitive with Google's Android offerings. It makes it clear that Apple wasn't just trying to swap Google out of iOS Maps without iPhone users being any the wiser. Apple made a huge investment in matching nearly every major feature Google had, a tremendous goal given Google's extensive experience and expertise in delivering mobile maps.
While media attention has focused on the new Maps' lack of Street View and Transit from iOS 5, that view ignores the vast efforts Apple was forced to undertake to modernize Maps. Apple prioritized driving directions with traffic updates in its initial release of maps, but also took on the 3D representations of Google Earth.
The question remains: how well did Apple do in its efforts to catch up with Google? And more importantly for most iOS users: how well does iOS 6 Maps actually work, and how does it compare with other alternatives available on iOS:
Introducing iOS 6.0 Maps
Using Maps Offline
2: Maps and visualizations
3: Transit directions
4: Map labels & local search
5: Routing & traffic
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