Neil Turner's Blog

Blogging about technology and randomness since 2002

On the midnight train going nowhere

Google Maps vs Apple iOS 6 Maps

Last week, as expected, Apple announced it was dropping Google as the data supplier for the Maps app on its iOS devices, and instead using data from a variety of sources – primarily OpenStreetMap but also from TomTom, Waze, Getchee, Localeze, Urban Mapping, DMTI, and MapData Sciences (according to TUAW). Apple isn’t the first major company to abandon Google Maps – Foursquare and Geocaching have also recently changed the maps on their web sites to other providers – and this is presumably because of the high charges Google is now asking for sites which make more than 25,000 API requests per day. Although Google is also increasingly becoming a competitor to Apple with its Android operating system so this is probably a major reason as well.

In its announcements at WWDC last week, Apple tried to make the new Maps app look like a major upgrade, and there are certainly some big new features – 3D flyovers, traffic information and turn-by-turn voice navigation (but only on the new iPad and iPhone 4S as it requires Siri). But in other ways, the new Maps app appears to be lacking.

First of all is the quality of maps – the above example of  the King’s Cross area of London was posted to Reddit last week, with the new maps on the left and old Google map on the right. The new map is far less detailed, with fewer street names and missing several key places of interest, like King’s Cross Station and the British Library. Detailed information like this is apparently more visible as you zoom in; if this is how the maps will look in the finished product, expect to be doing a lot more pinching and zooming, and to use up more of your data allowance in the process.

On the other hand, Apple’s new maps generally look better – the reduced amount of detail does at least make them cleaner. This is perhaps an area where the balance between form and function needs to be adjusted somewhat.

The other major issue is public transport data, and using it to plan routes. The current iOS Maps app gives you three options when giving directions – by car, walking and by public transport. The latter option is gone in iOS 6, and instead, a (currently empty) list of third-party apps is provided for you to download. I presume that once this list is populated, there will be an API allowing the maps app to pass from and to co-ordinates to the relevant third-party app.

This, again, is a side effect of dropping Google as the data provider – Google had various deals with public transport data providers to show this information on its maps and the old app was able to use this data. Now that Apple is taking this in house, it has decided not to take it upon itself to negotiate deals with the various data providers. An article on Cocoanetics muses that this is because public transport providers have previously terminated contracts with Google in order to provide data exclusively to another third party. There’s no requirement for bus and train companies to make their data freely available in every country, and in any case, there are thousands of different companies and agencies that Apple would have to deal with. (Anil Dash advocates open data in a blog post)

But this doesn’t mean Apple is off the hook. Getting third-parties to provide data is one solution to the problem, but it could lead to be a disjointed one. Say I wanted to travel from my flat to Colliers Wood in south London, using a local bus service, a train, and then the London Underground. Each of those three would have separate data services, and, potentially three separate apps. Local bus services would either be provided by the bus companies themselves or local authorities; train information would come from Network Rail (and is already available in a number of apps) and London Underground data is provided in apps such as mxData’s Tube Map app, amongst others. There’s no guarantee that these three apps would talk to each other, meaning that I would have to plan each section of the journey separately. (In reality, we have Transport Direct which combines all UK public transport data, although at present there’s no mobile app).

Unfortunately, it’s up to individual governments to insist that public transport data is made openly available and as Apple sells the iPhone in at least 50 different countries across the world (as far as I am aware) it would have its work cut out trying to collate all of that data together, especially if each country insists on a different data format.

In all, car users have a lot to gain in this update, but non-drivers who need fine-grain street maps for walking and information about buses, trains and rapid transit services will lose out. We will have to hope that Google creates its own third-party iOS app and incorporates these features; unfortunately, Apple’s new maps will become the default and will be the maps used by any third party apps that have a map component, like Foursquare.

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