If you have an iPhone, I invite you to see the Brooklyn Bridge on Apple Maps. In the 3D view, you can see how it stretches along the East River, hovering over the freeway at the edge of Manhattan and towering over its namesake park at the tip of Brooklyn. Move Apple’s Flyover tour and the camera slowly pans around the bridge in a satellite view on a bright, sunny day, allowing you to see the surrounding pavilion, the trees on Liberty Island, and the East River.
Sure, the bridge might look a bit blocky from some angles, but it’s clearly the Brooklyn Bridge, a far cry from when Apple Maps first launched and the bridge seemed to be melting into the ground.
The liquefied Brooklyn Bridge was just one of many irregularities, to put it mildly, since the launch of Apple Maps, a product that celebrates its 10th anniversary later this month. The app had one of the rockiest starts of any Apple product in recent memory, but the company has invested enough in it to make it an excellent maps app and a capable competitor to Google Maps. The changes represent one of the biggest product changes of the last decade.
Apple Maps grew out of a rift between Apple and Google. It may be hard to remember now, but the two companies were pretty friendly during the early years of the iPhone. When the iPhone first launched, Google CEO at the time, Eric Schmidt, was on Apple’s board of directors, and Google Maps and YouTube were two of the few apps that were pre-installed on every iPhone.
However, as Google quickly began creating its own iOS competitor on Android, Apple and Google became bigger rivals. Maps, in particular, was a sore spot: Google seemed to be withholding critical features from the iOS version of Maps, leaving iPhone users without turn-by-turn directions. Suddenly, Apple had good reason to wean itself off Google, and creating its own maps app was one of its biggest opportunities.
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 mistakenly labeled a park as an airport. A path passed over one of the suspension towers of the Golden Gate Bridge. Although Apple Maps was one of the standout features of iOS 6, the app was clearly not ready for prime time.
Apple was quick to fix the most glaring bugs immediately afterward. But the situation was bad enough that just 11 days after the launch of Apple Maps, CEO Tim Cook (who, at the time, had only been in the role for just over a year) published a remarkable open letter on the one apologizing for the half-launch. .
“At Apple, we strive to build world-class products that provide the best possible experience for our customers,” Cook wrote. “With the launch of our new Maps last week, we did not meet this commitment. We’re very sorry for the frustration this has caused our customers and we’re 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 on the maps team shortly after Forstall left.
From the stumble at the starting line, Apple began the long and winding road to improve Maps. At first there were little things, like fixing the originally distorted Brooklyn Bridge and the missing Statue of Liberty. But the app was still way behind when it came to basic features and map quality, so Apple started looking for companies to help fix major issues. One was a collaborative location data company. A couple offered transit applications. One was a GPS startup.
That helped Apple start working on key features. iOS 7 added a prompt asking users to help improve the service by sharing their frequently visited locations. Public transportation directions were finally added with iOS 9 in 2015, three years after Apple Maps debuted. The app received a major redesign a year later that greatly improved navigation 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 was nowhere near Google yet, and that was 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 was released, Apple began rebuilding Maps with its own data. That involved a huge investment in mapping anywhere Apple wanted to improve its coverage. The company began shipping its own mapping vans loaded with lidar arrays, cameras and an iPad connected to a dashboard. It also implements “pedestrian surveys,” or people on foot, to collect data. Some are equipped with sensor-laden backpacks.
Implementation of the new maps was slow, starting with just the California Bay Area, but the updated maps looked much better. They made nature much more visible, with green patches better highlighting parks and wooded areas, and also made it easier to differentiate between paths, thanks to different sizes and additional labels. You can see some examples in this blog from Justin O’Beirne, who closely tracked the progress of the improved maps.
It took until January 2020 for Apple to say that it had fully covered the US with the new redesigned maps (slightly later than its late 2019 estimate). But Apple has not only renewed the appearance of Maps. In recent versions, it also started adding a lot more features. Apple introduced a Google Street View-like mode called Look Around so you can see places at street level in iOS 13 in 2019. It also added real-time transit directions and the ability to share your ETA with friends in that same release.
With iOS 14, Apple introduced cycling 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 comes to fruition. In iOS 15, Apple added beautiful 3D details to a handful of cities, augmented reality walking directions (also in a handful of cities), and improved driving directions. And the big Maps feature coming with iOS 16 is multi-stop routing, so you can figure out directions for a multi-stop trip.
All of this is to say that Apple has been rapidly increasing how quickly it introduces features in Apple Maps, and I think the product is all the better for it: For me in Portland, Oregon, Apple Maps became my go-to map app. preferred. A few years ago. Yes, I admit that the experience is much better because my primary devices of choice are an iPhone and a MacBook Air, but for what I need, Apple Maps almost always guides me in the right direction.
You’ll notice I said almost. While Apple has caught up with Google Maps on many fronts, it still lacks the ability to download maps for offline access. Until Apple adds this, I’ll continue to download Google Maps for long trips away from home so I can keep a map of where I’ll be, just in case.
I’m also lucky enough to use Apple Maps while living in a major US metropolitan area. One of my colleagues in Europe isn’t happy that Apple still doesn’t provide 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, Australia, and New Zealand, though Apple started talking about the new Maps in 2018.
Although it still has room to grow (Apple please ditch the Yelp integration for reviews!), nearly 10 years after Maps launched, the company has turned it from a complete joke to something very useful for many people. If you had told me that would be the case the day Maps was released, I’m not sure I would have believed you. But here we are, and Apple Maps is, like XKCD wrote recently, something good now.