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In-depth Review: Apple's iOS 6 Maps & the alternatives 2: Maps and visualizations

Partial satellite perspective views

In its own Android app, Google additionally provides, 45 degree aerial views (for looking down at an angle from one of four directions, in addition to looking straight down) and, in perspective view, tilted satellite images (without topography, and without Earth-like models of buildings). This results in flat views similar to what Flyover looks like in cities where it hasn't been finished (below).

Microsoft also provides what it calls "bird's eye" 45 degree images, which simply show aerial images at four fix perspectives. This results in a series of canned views that can be cycled through to see a particular building from different angles. Apple's Flyover shows depictions from virtually any angle, with smooth animated transitions all the way around.

When comparing Apple's new Maps overall experience to iOS 5 Maps on a technical level, there's no contest: the new Maps app is technically superior, smarter, clearer, looks better and provides several specialized views that are easy to navigate. However, Apple's map service doesn't yet depict detailed maps in some areas. Fortunately, there a variety of apps and websites can be used when you're somewhere that Apple's maps don't provide adequate coverage.

Apple's bold entry into mobile maps

It shouldn't seem surprising that one of Apple's strongest competitive features in iOS 6 Maps is its user interface and visual appearance. However, Apple's main marketing focus with the new Maps hasn't focused on surface appearance as much as its underlying technology, including vector maps and 3D imaging features.

Apple's initial map acquisitions didn't begin until 2009, five years after Google began buying up mapping companies and nearly two years after Nokia spent $8.1 billion to buy Navteq. In addition to assembling a mapping technology group, Apple has shaken up the global mapping industry by throwing its weight behind the primary rival of Google and Nokia: Tele Atlas.

For its global map data, Apple partnered with auto navigation maker TomTom, which acquired Tele Atlas in 2008. Google had been under contract with Tele Atlas, but took its maps product solo just prior to releasing Maps Navigation for Android in 2009 (a primary competitor to GPS devices like TomTom's). Since then, Microsoft's Bing and AOL's MapQuest both moved to Nokia's Navteq maps, leaving Apple the choice between aligning with Nokia as well, or using TomTom's Tele Atlas maps.

If Apple were merely interested in spiting Google, it would appear to have made more sense to just partner with Nokia, which already had a competitive mobile maps product and lots of existing licensing agreements with the primary auto navigation vendors. This would have been far less expensive and would have involved much less effort for Apple both now and in the future to maintain global map accuracy and deal with changes.

Apple's decision to align itself with Tele Atlas (and its acquisition of Nokia's 3D partner C3) indicates that it has a long term intent to compete against both Google and Nokia. Apple's new Maps are a primary feature of iOS 6, not a briefly mentioned feature of iTunes like Ping was.

Apple's in it to win it

Apple's competitive intent is important because it demonstrates that Apple's Maps aren't just a temporary experiment but rather a large scale new initiative. Google has a very strong position in web search with its ad supported maps, but Nokia is actually selling its maps in the automotive space. That's an area Apple clearly wants to enter, and which it has already lined up a series of deals linked to Siri under its new "Eyes Free" initiative for integrating iOS devices to cars.

Apple's Maps are clearly a strategic direction for the company. Once the initial complaints about location errors and label typos get resolved (issues that are getting addressed less than three weeks after the new Maps' initial launch), Google and Nokia will have to compete with Apple in pure technology, starting with graphical presentation and visualizations.

That's an area Apple where has significant expertise. A decade ago, Apple brought video game technologies to desktop computing with Mac OS X's innovative Quartz graphics composition engine, beating Microsoft at its own game by six years. It then brought the same advanced imaging technology to the iPhone, something Google was unable to match in Android for three years, and which still hasn't rolled out to more than a quarter of Android's installed base of users.

Apple is now doing the same thing for Maps: taking existing geographical data and presenting it via hardware accelerated OpenGL views optimized for mobile devices. Google and Nokia have their own competing versions of vector based mobile maps, but Google's is currently limited to Android, while Nokia's is now nearly dead in the water following the failure of Windows Phone to gain significant traction over the past year.

Neither Google nor Nokia can bring its vector maps to iOS via the mobile web, simply due to the disadvantages of the web platform. That means both companies will need to deliver native apps for iOS in order to even have a showing on the world's largest and most valuable mobile platform, something neither of which has even targeted with an official release date yet.

Instead, both Google and Nokia have launched a scoff campaign ridiculing Apple's Maps. That strategy didn't work for Palm and RIM when they laughed at the original iPhone's keyboard-free design, didn't work for Microsoft's Windows Mobile, didn't work for Nokia's Symbian or Palm's webOS, and didn't work for Verizon's Droid campaign to sell 4G Android models. It also didn't work well for Apple against Microsoft Windows in the early 90s.

While scoffing at Apple, neither Google nor Nokia have delivered comparable technology that depicts both roadmaps and aerial photos in full perspective with photorealistic models. The tech media has adopted a negative narrative that ignores Apple's technological advances with Maps to focus on temporary glitches, but it's a lot easier to fix bugs than to build all new technology and, importantly, roll it out to paying customers, a significant problem Google and Nokia both face.

Apart from presentation, which has always been one of Apple's stronger points, there are other equally (or if you're stranded, far more) important factors to test out Apple's new map service. The next one up is transit instructions.

Introducing iOS 6.0 Maps
Using Maps Offline
2: Maps and visualizations
3: Transit directions
4: Map labels & local search
5: Routing & traffic