Sep. 24, 2012 at 6:57 PM ET
Do not, I repeat, do not use Apple's new Maps app for iOS 6 … if you live on the Falkland Islands, or plan on visiting in the near future. Seriously, you will be lost.
If you're in Seattle, or any other major U.S. city, you should be fine. In fact, if you upgrade from iOS 5 to iOS 6, you get passably good turn-by-turn navigation functionality — something you would have had to pay for on the old iOS version — for free.
That Maps thing that everyone and their mom seems to be yowling about? The criticism is out of proportion to the actual flaws.
And as flawed as it may be (and we'll get to that), it makes sense for Apple do this. The iPhone maker decided, sensibly, to push its chief competitor off of one of its main stages, after years of providing a pre-loaded revenue stream.
By swapping out a Google-powered Maps with a more homegrown one, what does Apple bring?
The big boon for iOS users is a free turn-by-turn navigator, which can get you from Point A to Point B with Siri's robotronically soothing voice and 3-D visuals that are at times so fun to look at, they could prove to be a distraction. (The renderings can be dazzling on highway on-ramps, for instance.)
There's also Yelp integration: Pop-up star ratings appear on restaurants and landmarks that you search for, and when you click through, you immediately pull up the Yelp page. As someone who can't stand Yelp reviewers but nevertheless uses Yelp data religiously, I look forward to saving time and effort by using this.
Where the "fly-over" 3-D photo imagery feature is enabled, it looks great, and delivers higher-resolution satellite imagery than you could get on the old Maps app.
As far as I can tell, those sponsored landmarks — the ones that netted Google some extra cash but never served you any purpose — are gone. Yes, big up to Apple for not shoving ads in your face when you're searching for a barber shop. That was getting annoying in iOS 5, and I'm glad it's gone in iOS 6.
Apple's traffic reporting is ... different. Instead of the spaghetti of green, yellow and red that you'd see on a Google map, you see chokepoints highlighted in red lines, and some scary-looking alerts here and there. I haven't decided yet if it's sensible minimalism or just missing information (and part of me misses seeing green and thinking "Go go go!"), but you may actually prefer it.
The iOS 6 update brings all of that, for free, and if you don't like it, you can just keep on using Google Maps.
"Wait, what??" you ask. "Didn't Apple kill off Google Maps?" No, and if you don't believe me, click here.
If you visit Google Maps on an iPhone's Safari browser, you can even tap "Add to Home Screen" and voila, you have a Google Maps Web app that does most or all that the old native Maps app did.
Google is sure to launch a native Maps app for iOS shortly (just like it did when Apple discontinued the pre-loaded YouTube player). When that happens, the map experience will only get better. Through competition. Apple vs. Google in a fight where no matter who loses, you win.
But yes, there are flaws in Apple's Maps app.
Besides the bugs, a big Apple Maps issue is the lack of public transit information. Google's database can tell you when your bus is scheduled to arrive, while Apple's new service can't even tell you what bus to take. (There are, of course, many free iOS apps that can, along with the aforementioned Google Web app.)
In a measured response to the outrage, Silicon Valley heavy (and Apple veteran) Jean-Louis Gassée explained that, while the maps can be messy, the problem is not cartographical in nature. Apple simply didn't deliver the message correctly:
The demo was flawless … but not a word from the stage about the app’s limitations, no self-deprecating wink, no admission that iOS Maps is an infant that needs to learn to crawl before walking, running, and ultimately lapping the frontrunner, Google Maps.
Map databases can be improved in realtime, and though Apple and its partners are clearly having growing pains trying to merge map data, 3-D renders and aerial photography, that's bound to improve. Consumer Reports echoes this in a press release, stressing the map database's ability to improve without requiring an iOS update:
Maps feels like a new application rolled out in beta form. Given the ease for pushing app updates to users and the server-side nature of Maps (meaning, the maps and other data are downloaded on the fly as needed), a rapid evolution is quite possible.
As a free application, Maps is definitely a welcomed addition to the iPhone universe, although at this moment, it does not compete well with established, third-party nav apps nor dedicated portable navigation devices.
So, let's review the facts:
A) There are flaws in Apple's Maps database.
B) These flaws very likely do not affect you in any way.
C) These flaws will be fixed and served up without you updating any software.
D) There is a lack of public transit information, which may or may not affect you, but is partially remedied by apps.
E) You now get free turn-by-turn navigation and instant links to Yelp pages — and no ads.
F) GPS-enabled Google Maps are still available on iPhones and iPads for free, through the Safari browser.
G) A Google Maps app for iOS will likely be here soon, too.
Now that you know all of that, are you still mad? Or are you asking yourself, why was I ever mad? Let me know. I don't want to apologize for Apple on this — in fact I agree with Jean-Louis Gassée and Consumer Reports, going so far as to say that Apple should publicly brand Maps "beta" software, like Siri — but let's all calm down.
It's not the end of the world, it's just the beginning of one new way to look at it.