If you own an iPhone, I invite you to check out the Brooklyn Bridge in Apple Maps. In the 3D view, you can see how it stretches across the East River, hovers over the highway on the edge of Manhattan and rises above the namesake park on the edge of Brooklyn. Flip the Apple flyover, and the camera will slowly hover around the bridge in satellite view on a bright, sunny day, letting you peek out onto the surrounding pavilion, at trees on Liberty Island and across the East River.
Sure, the bridge might look a bit full from many angles, but it’s clearly the Brooklyn Bridge—a far cry from the time Apple Maps was first released and the bridge looked like it’s melting into the ground.
The liquefied Brooklyn Bridge has been just one of many irregularities — to put it simply — since the launch of Apple Maps, the product that celebrates its 10th anniversary later this month. The app had one of the toughest beginnings of any Apple product in recent memory, but the company has invested enough in it to make it a great mapping app and a capable competitor to Google Maps. The changes represent one of the biggest product transformations in the last decade.
Apple Maps emerged from the dispute between Apple and Google. It may be hard to remember now, but the two companies were very friendly during the early years of the iPhone. When the iPhone was first launched, Google CEO at the time, Eric Schmidt, was a member of Apple’s board of directors, and Google Maps and YouTube were among the few apps that came pre-installed on every iPhone.
However, when Google quickly started creating its own iOS competitor in Android, Apple and Google grew into bigger competitors. Maps, in particular, was a sore point: Google appears to be blocking important features from the iOS version of Maps, leaving iPhone users without turn-by-turn directions. Suddenly, Apple had good reason to remove its reliance on Google, and the creation of its own Maps app was one of its biggest breaks.
On September 19, 2012, Apple replaced the Google Maps app with its own Apple Maps app. Since the jump, it has been an absolute disaster. The Statue of Liberty was mostly just a shadow. In Ireland, Apple has classified a park as an airport. A road passed over one of the hanging towers of the Golden Gate Bridge. Although Apple Maps was one of the logo features in iOS 6, the app was clearly not ready in prime time.
Apple raced to fix the most glaring bug in the immediate aftermath. But the situation was bad enough that just 11 days after Apple Maps was released, CEO Tim Cook (who at the time had been in that position for just over a year) published a wonderful open letter apologizing for the Half-Baked launch.
“At Apple, we strive to make world-class products that provide the best possible experience for our customers,” Cook wrote. “With the launch of our new maps last week, we failed to live up to that commitment. We deeply regret the frustration this has caused our customers and are doing everything we can to improve the maps.” A month later, Scott Forstell, head of iOS software, was fired for refusing to sign this letter. Apple also reportedly fired a senior map team manager shortly after Forstall’s departure.
From stumbling off the starting line, Apple embarked on the long and winding road to improving Maps. There were little things at first, like the repair of the already disfigured Brooklyn Bridge and the lost Statue of Liberty. But the app was still a long way off when it came to core features and map quality, so Apple started bringing companies together to help fix major vulnerabilities. One was a collective location data company. View a couple transfer apps. One was the GPS startup.
This helped Apple start getting rid of key features. iOS 7 added a prompt asking users to help improve the service by sharing frequently visited sites. Public transit directions were finally added with iOS 9 in 2015, three years after Apple Maps debuted. The app got a major redesign a year later that made navigation much better in iOS 10. Apple added internal navigation in iOS 11. (It changed the app icon that year to show the company’s spaceship campus as well.)
But the company can only go so far. Apple Maps still isn’t even close to Google, in part because it relied on third-party data for so much of what it shows in Maps. So starting in 2018 with iOS 12 — six years after Maps was first released — Apple started rebuilding Maps with its own data. This included a deep investment in mapping anywhere Apple wanted to improve its coverage. The company began sending out its mapping buggies loaded with lidar arrays, cameras, and an iPad attached to the dashboard. It also publishes “pedestrian surveys,” or people on foot, to collect data. Some of them are equipped with backpacks loaded with sensors.
Rolling out new maps has been slow – it started only in the Gulf of California – but the updated maps looked much better. They made nature more visible, with patches of green that highlight gardens and woodland areas more comprehensively, and made it easier to distinguish between roads, thanks to the different sizes and additional stickers. You can see some examples in this blog from Justin O’Bairne, who has extensively followed the progress of improved maps.
It took Apple until January 2020 to say it completely covered the US with the new redesigned Maps (slightly behind its estimates for the end of 2019). But Apple hasn’t just updated the way Maps look. In recent versions, it has also started adding more functions. Apple introduced a Google Street View-like mode called Look Around so you can see places at street level in iOS 13 in 2019. It also added real-time transit directions and the ability to share your ETA with friends in the same version.
With iOS 14, Apple introduced cycling directions, something Google Maps has also had for a very long time, and EV routing, which could come in handy if the long-rumored Apple Car comes to fruition. In iOS 15, Apple added beautiful 3D details to a few cities, as well as augmented reality walking directions (also in a few cities), and improved driving directions. And the big Maps feature set with iOS 16 is multi-stop routing, so you can get directions for a multi-stop flight.
That’s all it means that Apple has been rapidly ramping up how quickly they can introduce features to Apple Maps, and I think the product is much better for them: For me, in Portland, Oregon, Apple Maps became my go-to maps app several years ago. Yes, I’ll admit the experience is much better since my primary devices of choice are the iPhone and MacBook Air, but for what I need, Apple Maps always points me in the right direction.
You’ll notice I said approx. Although Apple has absorbed Google Maps on several fronts, it still lacks the ability to download maps for offline access. Until Apple adds this, I’ll keep downloading Google Maps for long trips away from home so I can save a map of where I’ll be, just in case.
I am also lucky to use Apple Maps while living in a major metropolitan area of the United States. One of my colleagues in Europe is not happy that Apple is still not providing bike directions in Amsterdam, the cycling capital of the world. The redesigned Apple Maps is only available in a handful of countries outside the US, including the UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, although Apple first started talking about the new maps in 2018.
Although there’s still room for growth (Apple, please drop the Yelp integration for reviews!), nearly 10 years after Maps was released, the company has turned it from a complete joke to usable for many people. If you had told me that would be the case the day the maps were released, I’m not sure I would have believed you. But here we are, and Apple Maps, as it is XKCD Books recently, kind now.
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