If you have an iPhone, I invite you to view the Brooklyn Bridge in Apple Maps. In the 3D view, you can see it stretching over the East River, soaring above the highway on the outskirts of Manhattan, and towering over the eponymous park at the tip of Brooklyn. Turn on Apple’s Flyover tour and the camera will slowly float around the bridge in a satellite view on a clear, sunny day, allowing you to take a look at the surrounding pavilion, among the trees on Liberty Island and over the East River.
Sure, the bridge might look a little blocky from a few angles, but it’s clearly the Brooklyn Bridge — a far cry from when Apple Maps first launched and the bridge seemed to melt into the ground.
The liquefied Brooklyn Bridge was just one of many anomalies—to put it lightly—from the launch of Apple Maps, a product that will celebrate its 10th anniversary later this month. The app had one of the hardest launches of any Apple product in recent memory, but the company has invested enough in it to make it a great maps app and a capable competitor to Google Maps. The changes represent one of the biggest product turns of the past decade.
Apple Maps was born from a rift between Apple and Google. It may be hard to remember now, but the two companies were quite intimate in the early years of the iPhone. When the iPhone was first launched, then-Google CEO Eric Schmidt was on Apple’s board of directorsand Google Maps and YouTube were two of the few apps that came preinstalled on every iPhone.
However, as Google quickly started creating its own iOS competitor in Android, Apple and Google grew into bigger rivals. Maps, in particular, was a sore spot: Google seemed to be holding back critical features of the iOS version of Maps, forcing iPhone users without turn-by-turn directions. Suddenly, Apple had good reason to remove its reliance on Google, and creating its own maps app was one of its biggest hiccups.
On September 19, 2012, Apple replaced the Google Maps app with its own Apple Maps app. From the jump it was an absolute disaster. The statue of Liberty was mostly just a shadow. in Ireland, Apple wrongly labeled a park as an airport. A road went over one of the hanging towers of the Golden Gate Bridge. While Apple Maps was one of iOS 6’s banner features, the app was clearly not ready for prime time yet.
Apple rushed to fix the most glaring flaws in the immediate aftermath. But the situation was bad enough that just 11 days after the launch of Apple Maps, CEO Tim Cook (who had only been employed for a little over a year at the time) released a remarkable open letter apologizing for the half-baked launch.
“At Apple, we strive to create world-class products that provide our customers with the best possible experience,” Cook wrote. “With the launch of our new Maps last week, we didn’t deliver on this promise. We are deeply sorry for the frustration this has caused our customers and we are doing everything we can to improve Maps.” A month later, iOS software chief Scott Forstall was fired, allegedly for refusing to sign that letter. Apple also reportedly fired a senior manager from the map team shortly after Forstall left.
From stumbling off the starting line, Apple embarked on the long and winding road to make Maps better. In the beginning, there were little things like fixing the originally deformed Brooklyn Bridge and the missing Statue of Liberty. But the app was still lagging far behind in basic features and map quality, so Apple started looking for companies to plug big gaps. One was a crowdsourced location data company. A few offered public transport apps. A was a GPS startup.
That helped Apple get rid of key features. iOS 7 added a prompt asking users to help improve the service by sharing their frequently visited locations. Public transit directions were finally added with iOS 9 in 2015, three years after the debut of Apple Maps. The app got a major redesign a year later that made navigation much better in iOS 10. Apple added indoor navigation in iOS 11. (It changed the app icon that year to also show the company’s spaceship campus.)
But the company could only go so far. Apple Maps still wasn’t even close to Google, in part because it relied on third-party data for much of what it showed in Maps. So starting in 2018 with iOS 12 — six years after Maps first launched — Apple started rebuilding Maps with its own data. that involved a deep investment Mapping out where Apple wanted to improve its coverage. The company started sending its own mapping vans loaded with lid arrays, cameras and an iPad connected to a dashboard. It also bets “pedestrian surveys”, or people on foot, to collect data. Some are equipped with backpacks full of sensors.
The rollout of the new cards was slow – it started with California Bay Area only – but the updated maps looked much better. They made nature much more visible, with green patches that better emphasized parks and forest areas, and also made it easier to distinguish between roads, thanks to different sizes and extra labels. You can see a few examples in this blog by Justin O’Beirnewho extensively tracked the progress of the improved maps.
It took Apple until January 2020 to say it had completely covered the US with the new redesigned maps (slightly later than the estimate of) end of 2019). But Apple hasn’t just revamped the way Maps looks. In recent releases, it has also started to add a lot more functionality. Apple introduced a Google Street View-like mode called Look Around so you could see street-level places in iOS 13 in 2019. It also added real-time directions and the ability to share your ETA with friends in that same release.
With iOS 14, Apple introduced bike directions, something Google Maps has also had for a long time, and EV routing, which could come in handy if the long-rumored Apple Car ever becomes a reality. In iOS 15, Apple added beautiful 3D detail to a handful of cities, augmented reality walking routes (including in a handful of cities), and improved directions. And the big Maps features arriving with iOS 16 are multi-stop routing, so you can find directions for a journey with multiple stops.
This is all to say that Apple has ramped up quickly how quickly it introduces features to Apple Maps, and I think the product is much better for it: For me, in Portland, Oregon, Apple Maps became my go-to maps app a few years ago. . Yes, I admit the experience is much better because my primary devices are an iPhone and a MacBook Air, but for what I need, Apple Maps almost always steers me in the right direction.
You’ll notice I almost said. While Apple has overtaken Google Maps on many fronts, it still lacks the ability to download maps for offline access. Until Apple adds this, I’ll keep downloading Google Maps for long trips away from home so I can save a map of where I’ll be, just in case.
I’m also lucky enough to use Apple Maps as I live in a metropolitan area of the US. One of my colleagues in Europe is not happy that Apple still doesn’t offer cycling directions in Amsterdam, the cycling capital of the world. And Apple’s redesigned maps are only available in a handful of countries outside the US, including the UK, Canada, Australiaand New Zealandeven though Apple first started talking about the new cards in 2018.
While it still has room to grow (Apple, ditch the Yelp integration for reviews!), nearly 10 years after Maps was released, the company has turned it from a complete joke to quite useful for a lot of people. If you had told me this would be the case the day Maps launched, I’m not sure I would have believed you. But here we are, and Apple Maps is, like XKCD wrote recently, bit good now.