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Monday, March 18, 2013, 04:45 pm PT (07:45 pm ET)

Developers prefer Apple's iOS Maps SDK over Google Maps

An in depth comparison of the development frameworks behind Apple's Maps and Google's finds pros and cons in both, but highlights Apple's as more mature, less limited and recommended for most third party app developers.



Apple's Maps: new, different and… more mature?



When Apple launched its own new Maps in iOS 6, many observers compared the new app negatively against the existing Maps app of iOS 5, unaware that both shared much of the same plumbing.

The "new" iOS 6 Maps replaced Google's mobile maps as the source of its mapping data and search features; Apple's loss of Google's server-side expertise in mapping meant that the new iOS 6 Maps introduced some obvious and problematic location errors and downgraded its search efficiency and accuracy in ways that were impossible for users to miss.

These flaws were obvious enough to sap much of the excitement away from the novel features that Apple had added to Maps, including 3D perspective with building models, Flyover for adding depth to satellite views (depicted above) and turn by turn navigation.

While many reviews of iOS 6 complained about the new Maps app, developers had a different initial expectation: rather than seeing negative changes on the client end, they looked forward to positive changes on the back end.

That's because the new iOS 6 Maps retained the maturity of Apple's Map Kit software development kit (SDK), which Apple had refined over the last five years of iOS. This SDK is used by third party developers to incorporate map features into their own apps.

Prior to iOS 6, Apple's Map Kit helped developers to integrate Google's mapping data into their products. After the launch of its own mapping services with iOS 6, Apple's SDK shifted the entire iOS app market to using Apple's own maps rather than Google's, but its underlying feature set actually improved.

After the surprise launch of iOS 6 Maps, first announced at Apple's Worldwide Developer Conference last summer, Google scrambled to bring two products to market: a standalone iOS Google maps app for consumers to use as an alternative to Apple's, but also a new Maps API for iOS developers in order to compete for attention among developers who incorporate maps into their apps.

"Enormous advantages" of Apple Maps SDK



A new report by Michael Grothaus of Fast Company profiles the experiences of two UK developers in integrating support for the rival Map SDKs of Apple and Google in their own apps, noting that Apple's maturity, completeness and unlimited all offer "enormous advantages" over Google.

Unsurprisingly, Apple's more than five years of experience in refining iOS' developer frameworks for working with map data give it a strong edge over Google's brand new SDK.

Among the SDK features that Google lacks in comparison to Apple's Map Kit is support for "map markers, polylines, and overlays," the report noted, explaining, "Tiled overlays are common in apps to display a layer of information, such as weather, crime, and even earthquake data, over a map."



Lee Armstrong, developer of the flight tracking app Plane Finder (shown above), was cited as noting, "we can’t do some of our more advanced features in Plane Finder like gradient polylines, chart overlays, or smooth moving planes with animations. We have some complex tiled overlays in Plane Finder: These are aviation charts that actual pilots use (shown below). With the Google Maps SDK these tiled overlays are just not possible right now.”



Other features unique to Apple Maps SDK



Bryce McKinlay, a developer behind the London transit app Tube Tamer (below), specifically noted the sophistication Apple's Map Kit provides in creating animated, draggable markers, something that's currently impossible to do with Google's SDK.



Apple has used animated, draggable markers in Maps since Steve Jobs first demonstrated "pin drops" to locate multiple search results for Starbucks at the 2007 debut of iPhone (just before clicking one to place a crank call from the Macworld Expo stage; below, starting at 4:50).



"The fact that annotations in Map Kit are UIViews also means that animation and other effects can be applied easily using Core Animation, which isn't currently possible with the Google Maps SDK approach"In contrast, McKinlay explained that Google's iOS maps SDK requires that markers must be configured in advance with static images, adding "this is less flexible and less efficient for apps with a large number of markers."

McKinlay also added, "The fact that annotations in Map Kit are UIViews also means that animation and other effects can be applied easily using Core Animation, which isn't currently possible with the Google Maps SDK approach."

Other handy features unique to Apple's Map Kit is "follow user location" and "follow with heading" modes. McKinlay explained this "automatically moves the map to follow the user's location, and rotates the map according to the compass heading," adding that "this is very helpful for pedestrian navigation. It is possible to implement this manually in Google’s SDK, but it adds extra development time/effort."