A couple months ago, Justin O’Beirne, former head of cartography for Apple, was using Google Maps when he noticed something different: Google had drastically reduced the number of readily visible cities on its maps, opting instead to prioritise highways and other means of transportation.
Given the sharp reduction, O’Beirne said he wanted to compare his findings to Apple Maps.
O’Beirne found that not only did Apple show between three to four times as many cities, the two maps diverged in several other key areas as well.
After studying how the two maps represented three major cities: London, New York and San Francisco, O’Beirne found that Google Maps heavily labelled transit, while Apple Maps prioritised landmarks, ultimately presenting two completely different world views.
In the first instalment of a four part blog series about the difference between the two maps, O’Beirne provided these side-by-side screen shots of Manhattan as shown in Google maps and Apple Maps at varying degrees of zoom:
Even though each map shows a similar number of points of interest, the overlap was only about 15%.
In particular, O’Bierne found that Apple showed twice as many restaurants and shops as Google. He noted that Google’s design emphasises utility while Apple emphasises a tourist-friendly experience.
“Both maps have strengths and weaknesses, and it’s hard to say which is better,” O’Beirne said. “It’s kind of similar to driving in a foreign country: driving on the other side of the road isn’t necessarily better… it’s just different.”
He believes we are rapidly approaching the day where a majority of the world’s population uses the same map, a “universal map.”
“I think the Universal Map is significant because there’s nothing else like it in history,” O’Beirne said. “If we think of the map as a ‘document’ (as we would with a traditional paper map), Google Maps has to be one of the most widely read documents in history.”
O’Beirne said that the company which achieves the status of universal map stands to gain a lot, as their map design has the power to create our shared picture of the world.
“Looking at the differences also helped me understand each map’s weaknesses — and I’m very interested in making something that tops both,” O’Beirne said.
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