Apple Maps turns 10 — and it’s finally worth using


If you have an iPhone, I invite you to view the Brooklyn Bridge in Apple Maps. In the 3D view, you can see it stretching over the East River, soaring above the highway on the outskirts of Manhattan, and towering over the eponymous park at the tip of Brooklyn. Turn on Apple’s Flyover tour and the camera will slowly float around the bridge in a satellite view on a clear, sunny day, allowing you to take a look at the surrounding pavilion, among the trees on Liberty Island and over the East River.

Sure, the bridge might look a little blocky from a few angles, but it’s clearly the Brooklyn Bridge — a far cry from when Apple Maps first launched and the bridge seemed to melt into the ground.

Here is the first version of Apple Maps of the Brooklyn Bridge.
Photo: The Verge

The Brooklyn Bridge and part of New York City as shown by Apple Maps.

This is what it looks like now: a real bridge.
Screenshot by Jay Peters / The Verge

The liquefied Brooklyn Bridge was just one of many anomalies — to put it lightly — from the launch of Apple Maps, a product that will celebrate its 10th anniversary later this month. The app had one of the hardest launches of any Apple product in recent memory, but the company has invested enough in it to make it a great maps app and a capable competitor to Google Maps. The changes represent one of the biggest product turns of the past decade.

Apple Maps was born from a rift between Apple and Google. It may be hard to remember now, but the two companies were quite intimate in the early years of the iPhone. When the iPhone first launched, then-Google CEO Eric Schmidt sat on Apple’s board of directors, and Google Maps and YouTube were two of the few apps that came preinstalled on every iPhone.

However, as Google quickly started creating its own iOS competitor in Android, Apple and Google grew into bigger rivals. Maps, in particular, was a sore spot: Google seemed to be holding back critical features of the iOS version of Maps, preventing iPhone users from getting step-by-step instructions. Suddenly, Apple had good reason to remove its reliance on Google, and creating its own maps app was one of its biggest hiccups.

On September 19, 2012, Apple replaced the Google Maps app with its own Apple Maps app. From the jump it was an absolute disaster. The Statue of Liberty was mostly just a shadow. In Ireland, Apple incorrectly labeled a park as an airport. A road went over one of the hanging towers of the Golden Gate Bridge. While Apple Maps was one of iOS 6’s banner features, the app was clearly not ready for prime time yet.

Apple rushed to fix the most glaring flaws in the immediate aftermath. But the situation was bad enough that just 11 days after the launch of Apple Maps, CEO Tim Cook (who had only been employed for a little over a year at the time) released a remarkable open letter apologizing for the half-baked launch.

“At Apple, we strive to create world-class products that provide our customers with the best possible experience,” Cook wrote. “With the launch of our new Maps last week, we didn’t deliver on this promise. We are deeply sorry for the frustration this has caused our customers and we are doing everything we can to improve Maps.” A month later, iOS software chief Scott Forstall was fired, allegedly for refusing to sign that letter. Apple also reportedly fired a senior manager from the map team shortly after Forstall left.

From stumbling off the starting line, Apple embarked on the long and winding road to make Maps better. In the beginning, there were little things like fixing the originally deformed Brooklyn Bridge and the missing Statue of Liberty. But the app was still lagging far behind in basic features and map quality, so Apple started looking for companies to plug big gaps. One was a crowdsourced location data company. A few offered public transport apps. One was a GPS startup.

That helped Apple get rid of key features. iOS 7 added a prompt asking users to help improve the service by sharing their frequently visited locations. Public transit directions were finally added with iOS 9 in 2015, three years after the debut of Apple Maps. The app got a major redesign a year later that made navigation much better in iOS 10. Apple added indoor navigation in iOS 11. (It changed the app icon that year to also show the company’s spaceship campus.)

But the company could only go so far. Apple Maps still wasn’t even close to Google, in part because it relied on third-party data for much of what it showed in Maps. So starting in 2018 with iOS 12 — six years after Maps first launched — Apple started rebuilding Maps with its own data. That meant a big investment in mapping everywhere Apple wanted to improve its coverage. The company started sending its own mapping vans loaded with lid arrays, cameras and an iPad connected to a dashboard. It also uses “pedestrian surveys”, or people on foot, to collect data. Some are equipped with backpacks full of sensors.

The rollout of the new maps was slow – it started with just the Bay Area of ​​California – but the updated maps looked much better. They made nature much more visible, with green patches emphasizing parks and wooded areas more thoroughly, and also made it easier to distinguish between roads, thanks to different sizes and extra labels. In this blog you can see a few examples of Justin O’Beirne, who extensively tracked the progress of the improved maps.

Screenshots on two iPhones comparing Apple's old card design with the new one, which has much more detail.

Apple’s old cards (left) compared to the new ones (right).
Image: TechCrunch

It took until January 2020 for Apple to say it had fully covered the US with the new, redesigned cards (slightly later than the late 2019 estimate). But Apple hasn’t just revamped the way Maps looks. In recent releases, it has also started to add a lot more functionality. Apple introduced a Google Street View-like mode called Look Around so you could see street-level places in iOS 13 in 2019. It also added real-time directions and the ability to share your ETA with friends in that same release.

With iOS 14, Apple introduced bike directions, something Google Maps has also had for a long time, and EV routing, which could come in handy if the long-rumored Apple Car ever becomes a reality. In iOS 15, Apple added beautiful 3D detail to a handful of cities, augmented reality walking routes (including in a handful of cities), and improved directions. And the big Maps features arriving with iOS 16 are multi-stop routing, so you can find directions for a journey with multiple stops.

This is all to say that Apple has ramped up quickly how quickly it introduces features to Apple Maps, and I think the product is much better for it: For me, in Portland, Oregon, Apple Maps became my go-to maps app a few years ago. . Yes, I admit the experience is much better because my primary devices are an iPhone and a MacBook Air, but for what I need, Apple Maps almost always steers me in the right direction.

A person holds an iPhone showing directions to a place in New York City on Apple Maps.

Apple Maps on the iPhone, albeit with the old-style map.
Photo by Amelia Holowaty Krales / The Verge

You’ll notice I almost said. While Apple has overtaken Google Maps on many 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’m also lucky enough to use Apple Maps as I live in a metropolitan area of ​​the US. One of my colleagues in Europe is not happy that Apple still doesn’t offer cycling directions in Amsterdam, the cycling capital of the world. And Apple’s redesigned maps are 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.

While it still has room to grow (Apple, omit the Yelp integration for reviews!), nearly 10 years after the release of Maps, the company has turned it from a complete joke to quite useful for a lot of people. If you had told me this would be the case the day Maps launched, I’m not sure I would have believed you. But here we are, and Apple Maps is, like XKCD wrote recently, pretty good now.

The Valley Voice
The Valley Voice
Christopher Brito is a social media producer and trending writer for The Valley Voice, with a focus on sports and stories related to race and culture.


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