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Apple Maps turns 10 — and it’s finally worth using

If you have an iPhone, I invite you to check out the Brooklyn Bridge on Apple Maps. In a 3D view, you can see how it spans the East River, soaring over the highway at the edge of Manhattan and over its namesake park at the tip of Brooklyn. Turn on Apple’s Flyover Tour and the camera slowly pans around the bridge in a satellite view on a bright, sunny day, allowing you to peer into the surrounding pavilion, at the trees on Liberty Island and across the East River.

Sure, the bridge may look a little lopsided from some angles, but it’s clearly the Brooklyn Bridge — a far cry from when Apple Maps first launched and the bridge appeared to be melting into the ground.

The Brooklyn Bridge appears to be melting in an early version of Apple Maps on the iPad.

Here is the first version of Apple Maps’ Brooklyn Bridge.
Photo: The Edge

Brooklyn Bridge and some of New York City provided by Apple Maps.

Here’s what it looks like now: the original bridge.
Screenshot by Jay Peters / The Verge

The liquefied Brooklyn Bridge is one of many manipulations — to put it mildly — since the launch of Apple Maps, which celebrates its 10th anniversary this month. The app has had one of the roughest starts of any Apple product in recent memory, but the company has invested enough to make it a great mapping app and a viable competitor to Google Maps. The changes are one of the biggest product turnarounds of the past decade.

Apple Maps emerged from a conflict between Apple and Google. It might be hard to remember now, but both companies were pretty cool in the early years of the iPhone. When the iPhone first launched, Google’s CEO at the time, Eric Schmidt, was on Apple’s board of directors, and Google Maps and YouTube were two of the few apps preinstalled on every iPhone.

However, Apple and Google became big rivals as Google quickly started creating an iOS competitor on Android. Maps, in particular, is a sore spot: Google appears to be disabling critical features from the iOS version of Maps, leaving iPhone users without turn-by-turn directions. Suddenly, Apple had a good reason to remove its reliance on Google, and one of its biggest breaks was making its own mapping app.

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 is mostly just a shadow. In Ireland, Apple mislabeled a park as an airport. A road passes over one of the suspension towers of the Golden Gate Bridge. Although Apple Maps is one of iOS 6’s banner features, the app is clearly not ready for prime time.

Apple raced to fix the most glaring flaws in the immediate aftermath. But the situation was so bad that just 11 days after the launch of Apple Maps, CEO Tim Cook (who, at the time, had only been in the role for a year) published a great open letter apologizing for the half-baked launch. .

“At Apple, we strive to make world-class products that deliver the best possible experience for our customers,” Cook wrote. “With the launch of our new Maps last week, we are committed to this. We are very sorry for the disappointment this has caused our customers and are doing everything we can to make Maps even better. A month later, iOS software chief Scott Forstall was fired for refusing to sign that letter. A senior manager on the Apple Maps team was also reportedly fired shortly after Forstall’s departure.

From a blunder from the starting line, Apple has embarked on a long and winding road to improving Maps. First there were the little things, like fixing the crooked Brooklyn Bridge and missing the Statue of Liberty. But the app still lags far behind when it comes to basic features and mapping quality, so Apple is starting to pick up companies to fix the big holes. One is a crowdsourced location data company. A couple offered transit apps. One is a GPS startup.

This helped Apple start chipping away at key features. iOS 7 added a prompt asking users to help improve the service by sharing frequently visited locations. Public transit directions were added with iOS 9 in 2015, three years after Apple Maps launched. The app received a major redesign a year later that improved navigation in iOS 10. Apple added indoor navigation in iOS 11. (It changed the app icon that year to show the company’s spaceship campus.)

But the company could only go so far. Apple Maps still isn’t close to Google, and that’s in part because it relies on third-party data for much of what it shows in Maps. So, starting with iOS 12 in 2018 — six years after Maps first launched — Apple began rebuilding Maps with its own data. Apple has invested deeply in mapping where it wants to improve its coverage. The company has begun sending out its own mapping vans loaded with lidar arrays, cameras and an iPad that hooks to the dashboard. It also runs “pedestrian surveys,” or people on foot, to collect data. Some are equipped with sensor-laden backpacks.

The rollout of the new maps has been slow — it just started with the Bay Area in California — but the updated maps look a lot better. They made nature much more visible, highlighted parks and forest areas more fully with green patches, and made it easier to distinguish between roads thanks to different sizes and additional labels. You can see some examples on this blog from Justin O’Beirne, who has extensively tracked the progress of Enhanced Maps.

Screenshots on two iPhones comparing Apple's old map design to the new one, which has a lot more detail.

Apple’s old maps (left) compared to the new (right).
Image: Tech Crunch

It took until January 2020 for Apple to say it had fully covered the US with new, redesigned maps (slightly later than its estimate of late 2019). But Apple hasn’t just refreshed the way Maps looks. In recent releases, it has started adding a lot more functionality. 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 the same release.

With iOS 14, Apple introduced cycling directions, which Google Maps has also long had, and EV routing, useful if the long-rumored Apple Car ever comes to fruition. In iOS 15, Apple added beautiful 3D details to some cities, improved realistic walking directions (even in some cities), and improved driving directions. And a big Maps feature coming with iOS 16 is multi-stop routing, so you can figure out directions for a trip with multiple stops.

All of this is to say that Apple is quickly ramping up how fast it introduces features to Apple Maps, and I think this product is all the better for it: for me, in Portland, Oregon, Apple Maps has become my go-to maps app. A few years ago. Yes, I’ll admit the experience is better because my main devices of choice are the iPhone and MacBook Air, but for what I need, Apple Maps almost always steers me in the right direction.

A man has an iPhone showing directions to a location in New York City on Apple Maps.

Apple Maps on iPhone, albeit with an old-style map.
Photo by Amelia Holowaty Kralls/The Verge

You will notice that I said almost. While Apple has caught up with Google Maps in many areas, 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.

I’m also lucky enough to use Apple Maps while living in a major US metropolitan area. One of my colleagues in Europe is not happy that Apple still doesn’t provide bicycle 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, even though Apple first started talking about the new maps in 2018.

Although it still has room to grow (Apple, please drop the Yelp integration for reviews!), nearly 10 years after Maps was released, the company has transformed it from a complete joke to something useful for many people. If you had told me that would happen the day Maps launched, I’m not sure I would have believed you. But here we are, and there’s Apple Maps XKCD Wrote recently, good now.

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