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In-depth Review: Apple's iOS 6 Maps & the alternatives 3: Transit

Keeping it simple

Looking at the moderately complex transit options at the intersection of Church and Market in the middle of San Francisco (noted above), Apple doesn't even try to depict that there are two light rail lines erupting from market street tunnel, taking trains west and south over the top of the separate, multi-line subway station below the corner, which is also intersected by a historic streetcar going down the surface of Market. There are also two bus lines that intersect that corner. At night, the subway lines are replaced with three "Owl" bus lines.

Zoom in on Apple's Map, and you'll see four separate icons for transit stops on that corner, with nearly zero information about them. The bus lines aren't even depicted at all. Clearly, Apple's Maps is essentially worthless for transit location or wayfinding on its own.

Apple needs to clean this mess of pins up, but its lack of effort in depicting all the trains and busses converging on and under this intersection was also quite intentional. If you look at the "transit layers" provided by Google and Nokia, they are generally terrible, presenting just enough information to introduce confusing complexity, but not enough to find basic answers.

There are also significant errors in their transit layers: Nokia appears to show more than one subway stop (there is only one subway platform), while Google appears to indicate that there's only one set of bus and train stops on the corner. Rather than taking on the task of depicting global transit systems and doing a poor job at it, Apple delegated the entire task to its third party developers to create specialized solutions for different areas.

So in general, Apple's new iOS 6 Maps simply ignores transit, placing it well behind Nokia's and Google's half-complete presentations on their web app or in their native apps. But when embellished with third party apps, Apple's integrated transit options are often easier to navigate, nicer looking, more detailed, and present more alternatives for users to choose from.

Why Apple delegated transit to external apps in iOS 6 Maps

Apple pretty clearly ignored transit in order to release iOS 6 Maps, focusing instead upon driving directions. Apple had the luxury of doing this in part because there were already a wide variety of third party App Store titles designed especially for navigating the San Francisco Bay Area, or Berlin's transit system (everything, not just the two major train systems), or the various systems in Tokyo and Paris and nearly every other significant transit system.

As Google's Android app demonstrates, it's far better to present transit information in a specialized app than to try to overlay lines on top of a road map. That's why every transit system and metro operator creates a specialized map rather than just drawing transit lines over the top of a standard road map. The more complex a transit system is, the more abstracted its map will be to simplify navigation.

This is why Apple simply passes start and end points to a helper app to find routes. Had the company tried to create a complex plugin architecture for Maps to allow third parties to overlay interactive transit information directly within Maps, it would have drastically limited what those developers could achieve. It would also have complicated the business model of third parties, forcing them to turn their own apps into "In App Purchases" within Apple's Maps app.

Additionally, plug in architectures have often failed due to security or performance issues (think about the mess of web browser plugins that the industry has moved away from); instability problems (from the old System 7 Extensions to Mac OS X kernel extensions and drivers, adding installable bits of software creates problems that are hard to track down); and simply the difficulty of selling component features rather than "apps" (OpenDoc was a notable failure along these lines).

Apple's solution to delegate transit to its App Store developers via a simple passing of end points is pretty genius in its simplicity, but it isn't perfect. If you enter search terms in Maps, you need to resolve them fully before asking a third party to route between them. Otherwise, typing in something like "home" might end up with the app finding directions to Home Depot rather than your house. Fortunately, this is easy to do: just enter your end points and pick from the suggestions Apple provides (there's more detail on labels and searching for locations later) before asking for a route.

The new location search mechanism in iOS 6 Maps (backed by Apple's own place search service, which will be examined in detail next) also helps out third party mapping apps, many of which seem to have trouble finding locations on their own. Rather than struggling with this issue in every routing app you use, you can use Apple's location search and address completion to set up and verify end points before you hand them to an app for routing.

Existing third party mapping apps continue to work and simply get more accessible (and visible to users) via Maps' new App Store integration. Note that there are lots of transit apps that don't yet support iOS 6 Maps. For example, the highly rated Routesy works great in the San Francisco Bay Area, but you still have to find it manually in the App Store because it hasn't added Maps integration yet.

There are lots of other specialized apps that iOS 6 Maps won't recommend trying until their developers add support for being found automatically (which involves a tweak to the app and specifying where it can provide directions), including Berlin Fahrinfo, which not only finds S-Bahn and U-Bahn routes like Google, but can traverse the city's entire transit system in detail.

What Apple needs to address for transit in Maps

The new Maps has only been out a few weeks, but there's clearly some aspects Apple needs to correct even if it plans to leave transit directions to third parties. First, it needs to replace the mess of transit "points of interest" with correctly labeled station markers, and assign them icons matching their transit operator. This should be done just to make it possible to set up driving directions to metro stations, if nothing else.

Once that's done, you should be able to click on a station and see at least some indication of what it is and what agency serves it. The same type of information should be applied to ferry terminals and airports, minimally directing users to the operators' websites or apps. Transit isn't the only type of location marker in iOS 6 that needs to be backed up with useful information, but it's one of the most obvious improvements Apple can make.

Finally, Apple needs to flesh out indoor and subterranean map layers for malls, airports, train and subway stations within Maps. Even if third parties are calculating their own routing between locations, they should be able to use Apple's Maps to portray how to get to and navigate within station levels and platforms. C3, one of the mapping companies Apple acquired, had already started work on mapping out indoor locations, making it likely these will find their way into upcoming updates of Apple's Maps.

While a variety of map-related apps (and unrelated apps, such as Coverage, for checking to see if your cellular carrier has service where you're going) have already supported integration with iOS 6 Maps, there's a number of routing apps, transit agencies and other transport companies with apps that don't yet. Apple should work hard to light a fire under airlines, ticket vendors (like Expedia or Hotwire) and other travel sites to support iOS 6 Maps (and Passbook).

iOS 6 Maps in Transit

In the area of transit, Apple's new iOS 6 Maps app delivers virtually nothing on its own, but taps into third parties to provide better presented, more accurate information than iOS users saw in the previous version of Maps. Third party titles supply not just routes, but features like reminders, station maps, local transit maps, and other customizations suited to a particular mode of transportation or to the culture of a particular region.

In addition to conventional transit, Apple's open-ended routing system for App Store titles allows for all kinds of new types of routing apps, presenting a lot of yet untapped potential for creative app developers. And because apps register a geographic region they know how to route with the App Store (which Apple uses to recommend appropriate options to users), developers can create specialized apps for very specific areas (as small as a ski lift or theme park, or a large as global airline).

When Google brings its own native maps app to iOS, it will have to reach a far higher bar than if it had done so prior to the release of iOS 6. It may, however, attract users for whom Google Transit currently works well. Both Google and Apple can use competition in this area, and both need to enhance their ability to find and label locations on their maps, a subject the next segment will address in detail.

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