Apple’s iPhone 5 launch has been overshadowed by the company’s new mapping application.Previously, Apple used Google’s data for its maps app. Now it’s using a blended mix of two dozen data partners, with TomTom the primary map data provider.
The new maps are different, which will always cause some angst for users. There are also reports that the maps are inaccurate, sending people the wrong direction, or to wrong locations. Also, Apple didn’t include public transit data, thus making the maps inherently inferior to Google’s maps app.
We’ve been testing the app for a week now, and while it has drawbacks compared to the Google-based maps, it also has its advantages. The maps are better-looking, smoother, and include turn-by-turn directions.
Still, at best Apple maps are a lateral move, not a step up. Apple, being Apple, didn’t tell people it was going to replace Google maps with a first-generation product that needs some work. On its iOS 6 page, Apple calls maps “the most beautiful, powerful mapping service ever,” adding, “you won’t get lost.”
Despite Apple’s claims, the maps are not the “most powerful,” and do get some people lost. As a result, many people are mad at Apple.
So why would Apple take such a big risk with one of the core applications of one of its most important products? The easy answer would be to say that Apple is an arrogant control freak that wants to force its own maps on helpless users, but in reality it is a complicated mix of different factors.
While Google likes to call itself an open company, the truth is that it’s as ruthlessly controlling as any major corporation. It wouldn’t let Apple do certain things with Google-based maps, according to Dr. Ed Lu, a former Google employee who worked on maps. Lu wouldn’t say exactly what Google restricted, but he hinted that Apple couldn’t get turn-by-turn directions for its maps.
John Gruber of Daring Fireball said on his podcast that Google’s maps on the iPhone were made with bitmaps, which load slower. Apple’s new maps are vector based, which is why they’re smoother and load faster. Gruber says Google wouldn’t let Apple do vector-based maps with Google’s data.
So, as good as Apple’s maps with Google data were, they were being limited by restrictions Google imposed on Apple.Apple was in negotiations with Google to overcome some of these restrictions, but the negotiations broke down. We’ve heard from two sources that Apple executives have been frustrated with Google over the way it controls the maps data.
With negotiations broken down, Apple had to build a new maps app.
Apple would have eventually built its own maps application, anyway. Maps are one of the most important apps on the phone. Apple couldn’t let a third party like Google play such an influential role over a key feature of the phone.
Each year the gap between the iPhone and Android phones gets narrowed. If Apple can make a mapping application that is significantly better than Google, it’s a key differentiator for consumers.
Unfortunately for Apple, its first pass at maps is not significantly better. But, contrary to much of the bluster out there, it’s not significantly worse.
Apple maps are the first iteration of an extremely complicated product. With time, Apple will gather more data, and refine the product. That doesn’t do much to sate people who expect the absolute best from Apple. And thus, the maps app is the dominant story, not the fact that Apple released its best ever phone.
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