I recently wrote about the expected change in the iPhone/iOS native Maps application. Apple is expected to replace Google as the backend and upgrade the app to include 3D maps. This is all supposed to be announced at WWDC on Monday, June 11.
Today, Google preempted this announcement with updates of its own regarding is mobile maps app. It specified that these updates were for the Maps app on Android but made reference to availability in the future on iOS. More coverage from Mashable, Ars Technica and Apple Insider.
The features they announced:
1. 3D Maps (unclear how this will compare to Apple’s 3D maps and how much coverage there will be to start)
2. Offline maps (this was one of my top requested features, yay!)
3. Better “streetview” for walking directions in places without roads like parks, mountains, etc. See the photo below for Google’s new rig to capture these views. This is kind of cool but seems like it will take some time to get coverage.
It’s not entirely clear when these features will be available or the specifics about how they work. It seems that Google wanted to announce these before Monday so as to:
1. Steal Apple’s thunder
2. Soften the blow when it’s announced they’re no longer powering the native app on iOS.
Unfortunately for Google, they are not in the same league as Apple when it comes to PR, so most people will not even hear about today’s announcements while Apple’s announcement on Monday will likely be accompanied by a launch of other sexy products and features and will get covered ad nauseam. In general, I think this competition is great. When Google and Apple have competed in mobile OS, desktop browsers and elsewhere, consumers have reaped the benefits of some of the best and quickest tech innovation ever. Bring on the maps!
There have been persistent rumors over the past month or so that Apple will be replacing (upgrading?) the current Maps application with the new version of the iPhone operating system (iOS 6). This has been expected for a while as Apple has purchased a variety of companies that work on parts of the map ecosystem. The screenshot above is a speculative screenshot of what the new app might look like in 3D view.
I’ve written before about how Maps may be the most important app on the iPhone. Many people use the Maps app every day and it certainly has changed life for many folks – no more having to print directions or write them down before leaving the house on a drive, walk or trip. Despite any flaws or missing features, the Maps app has been a key part of the transformative experience of owning an iPhone.
Many people refer to the Maps app on the iPhone as Google maps. It’s true that for now the underlying data comes from Google but like all the native apps on the iPhone, the app has always been built and maintained by Apple. Ever since Google launched Android and incurred Steve Jobs’s wrath, it was assumed that Apple would replace Google as their backend and it seems now is the time.
The rumors are that the app will receive a full overhaul – the backend will be owned by Apple and the visual look and feel will change to, particularly to include a 3D viewing option.
I will withhold judgement on whether or not the app will be an upgrade, but to me, the most important things that should be done to improve the functionality of the maps app are (I’ve written about these before):
1. Include turn-by-turn directions. This means that rather than having to push “next”, the phone automatically tracks your progress and visually and orally provides the next set of instructions (just like your car’s GPS does). It also corrects the directions automatically if you go off-route. Google’s app for Android does this well. The reason this used to be hard is due to licensing costs for using the underlying map data in this way. Google got around that by creating their own set of map data.
2. Include an option to download offline versions of maps for specified metro areas. The GPS doesn’t require the cellular network to work and the app could be fully functional with offline maps. This would serve 2 functions:
- Maps would load when network service is slow or unavailable (e.g. subway underground). There is nothing more frustrating than being lost and late to a meeting and watching a map try to load in the background.
- When roaming outside one’s core country, one could use the maps app to navigate in an unknown city without paying exorbitant data roaming charges.
I’m not convinced that Apple will build an app that has great features and functionality vs. just more interesting design and views (e.g. 3D). So, I hope that once Apple replaces Google from its backend that Apple approves a native Google Maps app for the app store. I also hope that Google builds and submits such an app that’s as good or better than their Android Maps app. Real competition for an app that is as core as Maps would be very healthy.