Is the map app war over or is it just getting started?
Apple kicked Google’s mapping data out of the iPhone’s Map app back in September with iOS 6 but now Google is back — this time with its own app. The two former partners have been rapidly drifting apart for years and Apple had long been preparing for the geo-data split, snapping up Placebase in 2009, Poly9 in 2010, and then last year C3 technologies, whose 3D mapping technology was called “Google Maps on steroids.”
But despite all the hot acquisitions, Apple fumbled the app development. The app had a new, cleaner interface and some cool features Google had never provided, like free turn-by-turn directions and a stunning 3D overhead view of major cities. Unfortunately, it was also quickly apparent that some of the maps were wrong, even dangerously wrong. While comedians had a field day and we were amused by a cute Tumblr spoof of the worst mistakes, Apple CEO Tim Cook offered a full-out apology, promising to improve the app as soon as possible and actually recommending competing apps to use in the meantime. Within months, Richard Williamson, who headed the Maps team, was out the door.
Now that Google is back with its own iPhone app, including free turn-by-turn directions, too, the battle is on. Not that Google is perfect (see interesting view of my trip to Baltimore below). New York Times reviewer David Pogue raved about the new Google app, so the other night I did my own version of the old Coke versus Pepsi challenge. I ran both apps to give me turn-by-turn directions while driving home from work with a buddy (don’t worry – he was driving).
Here’s the best news: both apps are stunning in delivery of a clean display and great directions. Both are unbelievably cool in presenting 3D views, especially as you navigate around the city. Apple’s integration of the C3 technology is pretty impressive. But Google does win out in subtle ways in their user experience, most importantly in how you break out of turn-by-turn mode to look around. I will say both do take a little bit of learned behavior to master.
Now the pressure is on Apple to fix its map data and leapfrog Google, not to mention the couple of other iPhone map competitors like Waze and Mapquest that have jumped in popularity since Cook mentioned them. Maybe we iPhone users suffered for a few months there but with Google Maps back and the competition heating up, even better apps are still to come.