If you have an iPhone, I invite you to take a look at the Brooklyn Bridge on Apple Maps. In 3D, you can see how it stretches across the East River, hovering over a highway on the edge of Manhattan and towering over the park of the same name at the end of Brooklyn. Flip over to Apple’s Flyover tour, and the camera will slowly float around the bridge in satellite view on a clear, sunny day, allowing you to peer into the surrounding pavilions, over the trees on Liberty Island, and across the East River.
Sure, the bridge might look a little yellow from some angles, but it’s definitely the Brooklyn Bridge—a far cry from when Apple Maps first launched and the bridge appears to be melting to the ground.
The thawed Brooklyn Bridge is just one of many digressions—to put it mildly—from the launch of Apple Maps, a product celebrating its 10th anniversary later this month. The app has had one of the roughest start of any Apple product in recent memory, but the company has invested heavily in making it a great mapping app and a capable competitor to Google Maps. The change represents one of the largest product turnarounds of the last decade.
Apple Maps emerged from the rift between Apple and Google. It might be hard to remember now, but the two companies were pretty close during the iPhone’s early years. When the iPhone was first launched, Google CEO at the time, Eric Schmidt, was on Apple’s board of directorsand Google Maps and YouTube are two of the few apps that come pre-installed on every iPhone.
However, as Google quickly began to create its own iOS competitor on Android, Apple and Google grew into bigger rivals. Maps, in particular, are a sore spot: Google seems to be withholding important features from the iOS version of Maps, leaving iPhone users behind without turn-by-turn directions. Suddenly, Apple had a good reason to break its reliance on Google, and creating its own mapping app was one of its biggest breakthroughs.
On September 19, 2012, Apple replaced the Google Maps application with its own Apple Maps application. Straight off the jump, it was an absolute disaster. Statue of Liberty mostly just a shadow. In Ireland, Apple mislabeled parks as airports. A path through one suspension tower of the Golden Gate Bridge. While Apple Maps is one of iOS 6’s banner features, the app is clearly not ready for prime time.
Apple race to fix the most glaring mistakes immediately after. But the situation was bad enough that just 11 days after Apple Maps launched, CEO Tim Cook (who, at the time, had only been in office for a little over a year) published an extraordinary open letter apologizing for the half-baked launch. .
“At Apple, we strive to make world-class products that provide the best experience for our customers.” write the cook. “With the launch of our new Maps last week, we fell short of this commitment. We’re very sorry for the frustration this has caused our customers and we’re doing everything we can to make Maps better.” A month later, iOS software chief Scott Forstall firedsay for refuse to sign the letter. Apple also reportedly fired a senior manager on the map team shortly after Forstall left.
From stumbling across the starting line, Apple embarked on a long and winding road to making Maps better. There were small things at first, like fixing originally distorted the Brooklyn Bridge and the lost Statue of Liberty. But the app still lags far behind in terms of basic features and mapping quality, so Apple started rounding up companies to help fix the big hole. One of them is crowdsourced location data company. Couples offered transit application. One is the start of GPS.
That helped Apple start cutting back on key features. iOS 7 adds a prompt asking users to help improve the service by sharing the locations they frequent. Public transport directions are finally added with iOS 9 in 2015, three years after the debut of Apple Maps. This app got a major redesign a year later which makes navigation much better in iOS 10. Apple adds indoor navigation on iOS 11. (It changes app icon that year to show the company’s spaceship campus as well.)
But the company can only go so far. Apple Maps still isn’t close to Google, and that’s partly due to relying on third party data for most of what is shown on Maps. So, starting 2018 with iOS 12 — six years after Maps first launched — Apple started rebuild Maps with its own data. Which is involved deep investment into the mapping wherever Apple wants to increase its coverage. The company started shipping its own mapping van loaded with lidar arrays, cameras, and dashboard-connected iPads. It also spreads “pedestrian survey” or people on foot, to collect data. Some are equipped with a backpack full of sensors.
New map launch is slow — starting with only Bay Area California — but the updated map looks much better. They make nature much more visible, with patches of green that further accentuate parks and forest areas, and also make it easier to distinguish between roads, thanks to the different sizes and additional labels. You can see some examples on this blog from Justin O’Beirnewhich extensively tracks the progress of the improved map.
Need Apple to arrive January 2020 to say that it has completely covered the US with a new redesigned Map (slightly slower than expected) end of 2019). But Apple didn’t just refresh the Maps view. In the latest release, it also started adding more functionality. Apple introduced a Google Street View-like mode called Look Around so you can see places on street level on iOS 13 in 2019. It also adds real-time transit directions and the ability to share your ETA with friends in the same release.
With iOS 14, Apple introduced cycling directionssomething that Google Maps also has for a very long timeand EV routing, which can be useful if The long rumored Apple Car ever come to fruition. In iOS 15, Apple added beautiful 3D details to some cities, augmented reality walking directions (also in some cities), and improved driving directions. And the big Maps feature coming with iOS 16 is multi-stop routingso you can find directions for trips with multiple stops.
This is all to say that Apple has quickly stepped up how quickly it introduces features to Apple Maps, and I think this product is much better for it: for me, in Portland, Oregon, Apple Maps became my go-to map app a few years ago. Yes, I’ll admit that the experience was much better since my primary devices of choice are the iPhone and MacBook Air, but for what I need, Apple Maps almost always points me in the right direction.
You’ll see I said almost. While Apple has caught up with Google Maps in many areas, it’s still missing the ability to download maps for offline access. Until Apple adds this, I’ll continue to download Google Maps for trips away from home so I can save a map of where I’ll be, just in case.
I’ve also had the good fortune of using Apple Maps while living in a major US metropolitan area. One of my colleagues in Europe isn’t happy that Apple still doesn’t offer bicycle directions in Amsterdam, the cycling capital of the world. And Apple’s redesigned maps are only available in a few countries outside the US, including English, Canada, Australiaand New Zealandalthough Apple first started talking about the new map in 2018.
While it still has room to grow (Apple, please remove the Yelp integration for review!), nearly 10 years after the release of Maps, the company has turned it from a complete joke to a very useful one for many. If you had told me that’s what was going to happen the day Maps launched, I’m not sure I’d believe you. But here we are, and Apple Maps, as XKCD recently wrote, kinda good now.