Google has released a native maps app for the iPhone and it's fast, full-featured, and quite frankly the best-looking mobile maps experience on the market today. After months of problems and a formal apology in the wake of Apple's own Maps app on iOS 6, many have been waiting for Google to offer a solution that could serve as a viable replacement. If the brief demo we saw earlier this week is any indication, Google has delivered.
The majority of maps features that matter are all here: traffic, turn-by-turn navigation, transit directions, walking directions, satellite view, street view, indoor photos, Zagat restaurant reviews, and a bit of integration with your Google profile. Unlike many of Google's other, earlier efforts on iOS, Google Maps is a fully-native app instead of a "web wrapper." It also utilizes vectors instead of graphical tiles, which translates into faster load times and lower data costs.
Unfortunately, offline maps isn't available in this release. Google is doing some local data caching — in particular, transit directions don't go away when you're in a subway tunnel — but hopefully an offline feature will arrive in a future update.
A clean and elegant interface
Daniel Graf, Director of Google Maps for Mobile, told us that Google "started working on it this year," but wouldn't comment specifically on exactly when the company began developing the app. What he did tell us — and what's clear when you see the app's design — is that Google has taken everything it has learned about app design and performance in the past year and baked it into Maps.
Where Android's Google maps experience has no fewer than three different options menus visible on the main screen, the iPhone version offers a much cleaner and more elegant interface. "We took a step back," Graf told us, "we had an opportunity to create a new experience from scratch." The "new experience" is actually a familiar one — the design shares much of the aesthetics of the new Gmail 2.0 app for iOS.
Google has excised most of the on-screen elements on Maps, displaying just a single, white search box and a couple of control overlays. Search results appear on the map and in a small white bar at the bottom, something Google calls an "Info Sheet." You can perform gestures on that bar, swiping left and right between results.
It may not be immediately intuitive
Tapping or swiping up reveals the full info sheet, which utilizes a kind of vertical sliding panel to first show the map up top, then hide it as you drill into contact details, street view, and reviews. It may not be immediately intuitive to everybody, but it only took me a few minutes to understand the logic of how the app works. It's certainly functional, especially as you learn to slide up the info sheet from its minimized view into a half map / half sheet view, and lastly into the full view.
The same clean design applies to getting directions and Google's full complement of transit information (the company touts "one million stops") is on hand. You can swipe between alternate routes and drilling in reveals more detailed directions.
Turn-by-turn navigation works even if you're not in the app
We didn't get a chance to fully see driving navigation, but Graf says that it still works even if you're not in the app. Google has utilized the standard iOS "Local Notification" feature to provide you with spoken, turn-by-turn directions via a notification even if you're on the lock screen or in another app. In fact, Graf told us, Google didn't get any special access at all — it's a standard iOS app using standard iOS APIs.
Speaking of APIs, Google is providing two options to developers of other apps. The first is a "URL Schema," where developers who want to link addresses to Google Maps instead of Apple Maps can easily do that — if users don't have Google Maps installed, the URL would direct them to the App Store. Presumably Google's other iOS apps — including Search, Gmail, and Chrome — will be updated soon to support the Maps integration. The second is a full API for third party developers to integrate Google Maps fully into their app instead of using Apple's Maps. Neither is a perfect solution — Google will need to compete directly with Apple on its own iOS turf to convince developers to switch over.
There are a few hidden features to note. A two-finger swipe to the left will bring up a menu with toggles for traffic and satellite view (there's also a small button on the lower-right). From anywhere within the app, a shake will bring up an option to send a report to Google detailing some problem with the map or with the app itself.
One thing curiously missing from Google Maps is advertising, though there's no shortage of ways it could be integrated in the future. For now, Graf told us, "We wanted to nail the main uses cases, and get an app out as soon as possible."
Google Maps for iOS is the best-designed maps app on any platform
The app should be rolling out worldwide in the App Store now, available in over 40 countries and 29 languages. It's compatible with iOS 5.1 and above, but sadly it's not designed to work on the iPad. Google says that will come later. Graf also said that the goal is to maintain a parity between iOS and Android going forward — which hopefully means that a few Android-specific features will come to iOS and that the clean design of this app will make its way back to Android.
Compared to Apple's Maps app, Google Maps clearly wins on the data front, with complete mass transit directions and fewer of the accuracy issues that have plagued the built-in app. What's more intriguing is that Google Maps also matches (or beats, depending on your taste) Apple Maps in its speed, design, and overall aesthetics. It's the combination of massive and accurate data with a well-made app that makes Google's offering so compelling.
Google Maps for iOS is the best-designed maps app on any platform and challenges even Google Maps on Android for speed. That sounds like hyperbole, but on the iPhone 5 the new Google Maps app seems faster and is definitely better-designed than even Google Maps on Android. If Apple CEO Tim Cook is looking for examples of how to do a maps app right on the iPhone — or on any platform — Google has provided the answer.