Gizmodo’s Casey Chan has a brutal comparison of the newly-announced Apple Maps app with the Google-based app iPhone users are used to, noting that Apple’s version is “completely devoid of useful information.” If the accompanying screenshots are an accurate indication, people who like their maps to tell them street names should get ready to be disappointed. It’ll be a shame if Apple’s App falls short of the current Google version by the time release date rolls around, for the incumbent itself has significant room for improvement.
While Apple and Google race to out-do each other with 3-D and street views and flyovers and wireframes of building interiors and assorted other bells and whistles that look great in marketing materials but are of limited actual value, there remain two glaring omissions from their feature sets: Offline maps and custom maps.
If I open a mapping app on a mobile device, it’s probably because I need a map. And if I need a map while I’m out and about, I probably need a map now. But wireless data is often slow and unreliable, so sometimes -- too often -- when I open Maps I see a gently pulsing blue dot showing where I am … on a blank background, as the iPhone tries in vain to download the map it needs. This should not be acceptable to anyone who regularly uses the app.
Obviously, a mobile device filled with music and photos and apps and assorted other data can’t plausibly store detailed maps of every square foot of the planet. (Though, while we’re on the subject: More onboard storage, please. The cloud may be the future, but the present is slow and unreliable wireless data coverage.) At an absolute minimum, Apple and Google should allow users to manually cache map portions for offline use -- enter a location (or a route), select a radius, download maps covering the specified area. Simple.
But not simple enough. My iPhone knows where I am; it should go ahead and automatically cache maps covering a large -- 100 miles? -- area around me for use should my data connection fail. When I’m traveling on a route I planned using the Maps app, it knows where I’m going, too, and how I’m getting there. So it should automatically cache all the Maps I’ll need -- my current location, my destination, my route, and a sizable buffer around the whole thing.
It seems fairly amazing that this isn’t (yet) considered an essential standard feature of any decent mapping app.
See all those symbols? Those are markers for restaurants, bars, music venues, hotels, etc. You can zoom in and click them for more information -- name, address, phone number; you can even add your own notes and photos -- or to get directions to or from the marker you’ve selected. Adding a marker is simple -- search for a location, add it to your map, and you’re done. It’s quite handy for trip planning.* It would be incredibly useful to be able to open that map in my iPhone’s Maps app. I could immediately see which places I want to visit are near me, how to get there, etc. But there’s no way to open it in Maps, or to create anything similar in the app.** I can open the app in a web browser on my iPhone … but it doesn’t really work. (I’ve tried both Safari and Opera, on both the iPhone and iPad, with results ranging from bad to awful.)
Again, I’m kind of amazed this isn’t table stakes for a mobile mapping application.
These two features would be far more useful than satellite views or street views or flyovers or 3D or just about anything else Apple and Google are actually doing. Like, the difference between “really, really useful, if not essential” and “I only encounter that ‘feature’ when I accidentally tap the wrong button or zoom in too far, then have to wait six seconds while for the ‘feature’ to finish loading so I can dismiss it.” I would happily pay for a quality mapping app that offered these two features. And, while I don’t know much about software development, I have to imagine both of these features would be far easier to implement than the fancy bells and whistles we get instead. It’s the cartographic equivalent of enduring some horrible Flash intro to a restaurant website that then omits the only thing you care about -- the address.
* Google’s “My Maps” feature itself could use some improvement. Most notably, it’s harder than it should be to get directions from one place marker to another. You’d think you could just click one, click “directions,” click another, and get directions from the first to the second. You can’t. You have to manually copy the address of one location, then click on another, then click directions, then paste in the address of the first location. There are other obvious improvements like this that Google should have made long ago, but it’s still the best way to create maps like this that I’ve found. And, obviously, still light years ahead of anything you can do in iOS.
** The ability to create something like this on iOS would be nice, but the iOS app should also sync with a web app; it’s just much easier to do things like this on a traditional computer. For no