Opinion: iOS 6 Maps is great, and it's not

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In his iOS 6 review, Macworld senior editor Dan Moren praised its new Maps functionality. But there’s been something of an online uproar from a vocal and unhappy percentage of iOS 6 early adopters who find themselves deeply disappointed by Apple’s take on the newly Google-free Maps app.

Moren wrote in his review that “it’s hard to overstate just how beautiful and responsive [the new maps] are … Street names appear and disappear at appropriate levels of zoom, so you’re not bludgeoned by scads of unnecessary information, and they rotate along with the map. Neighborhoods and regions are well-marked, and even parks and bodies of water take on a more attractive look.”

The most commonly aired complaint from folks with the other perspective is that Apple’s maps are incomplete—or worse, incorrect—where Google’s were not. In the New York Times, David Pogue complains that “Apple’s database of points of interest … is sparser than Google’s.” And TechCrunch calls Maps in iOS 6 “a significant backslide,” citing the fact that Apple’s coming to the Maps party late, and that Google has had way more time and experience to build out its product.

And the truth is, Maps praisers (like Moren) and detractors (like Pogue and TechCrunch) are, quite frankly, all spot on.

The new Maps is very good—provided you live in an area well-covered by the app’s data, with accurate information. It’s great if you crave turn-by-turn directions and don’t already own a GPS unit or a pricier App Store app for that purpose.

But, as the tongue-in-cheek The Amazing iOS 6 Maps blog reflects, all of the Maps app’s benefits are so much hooey if the maps you need don’t accurately reflect reality.

Apple isn’t relying on its own cadre of cartographers; it’s acquired several mapping companies in the past few years. The Maps app in iOS 6 uses data from TomTom, the OpenStreetMap project, and other sources. It’s unclear whether Apple simply lacks the data it needs, or if the app is algorithmically tweaking what’s shown—to its detriment—for the sake of simplicity or legibility. In a statement to MacStories, TomTom implied that its “underlying content, notably the maps” is good, but Apple’s display may be the problem: “User experience is determined by adding additional features to the map application, such as visual imagery … [which] is typically defined and created by the handset manufacturers.”

Google, obviously has had a head start on Apple when it comes to mapping solutions. The search giant debuted Google Maps in 2005, in a time when services like MapQuest were still the undisputed kings of online mapping. And Google Maps has continued to evolve over that time, in both its Web form and mobile incarnations. Google has also since launched its own Android mobile platform, and the capabilities of Maps on that platform has arguably outstripped iOS’s offering for some time.

Regardless of whether it’s Apple’s own code that needs fixing or its source data, the problem is Apple’s either way. Unhappy users will continue to complain if iOS 6’s Maps app doesn’t meet their needs; if Google does indeed release its own iOS version of Maps, as has been heavily rumored, then Apple might find that its iOS users are jumping ship back to its rival.

We’ve known for months about some of the Maps app’s limitations—its lack of built-in public transit data, the loss of Google’s Street View offering—but the perceived weak spots in its coverage are new to consumers, and perhaps the most problematic failing of all.

Apple didn’t respond to Macworld’s request for comment about concerns surrounding the new app when this story was published. But users who find that the Maps app doesn’t provide the data that Google once did can take at least some small comfort in the fact that Google’s mobile site for maps—available at maps.google.com on your iPhone or iPad—reveals the same data from iOS 5, though without the obvious benefits of a native app.

Senior editor Dan Moren contributed to this piece.

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