If you own an iPhone, I invite you to check out the Brooklyn Bridge in Apple Maps. In the 3D view, you can see just how it stretches across the East River, hovering over the highway on the edge of Manhattan and towering over its namesake park at the tip of Brooklyn. Flip on Apple’s Flyover tour, and the camera will slowly hover around the bridge in a satellite view on a bright, sunny day, letting you peek into the surrounding pavilion, over at the trees on Liberty Island, and across the East River.
Sure, the bridge might look a little blocky from a few angles, but it’s distinctly the Brooklyn Bridge — a far cry from when Apple Maps first launched and the bridge appeared to be melting into the ground.
The liquefied Brooklyn Bridge was just one of many irregularities — to put it lightly — from the launch of Apple Maps, a product that celebrates its 10th anniversary later this month. The app had one of the roughest starts of any Apple product in recent memory, but the company has invested enough into it to make it a great mapping app and a capable competitor to Google Maps. The changes represent one of the biggest product turnarounds of the last decade.
Apple Maps emerged out of a rift between Apple and Google. It might be hard to remember now, but the two companies were pretty chummy during the iPhone’s early years. 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 that were preinstalled onto every iPhone.
However, as Google quickly began to create an iOS competitor of its own in Android, Apple and Google grew into bigger rivals. Maps, in particular, was a sore spot: Google appeared to be holding back critical features from the iOS version of Maps, leaving iPhone users without turn-by-turn directions. Suddenly, Apple had good reason to remove its reliance on Google, and making its own mapping app was one of its biggest breaks.
At first, Maps was an absolute disaster
On September 19th, 2012, Apple replaced the Google Maps app with its own Apple Maps app. Right from the jump, it was an absolute disaster. The Statue of Liberty was mostly just a shadow. In Ireland, Apple mislabeled a park as an airport. A road went over one of the Golden Gate Bridge’s suspension towers. Even though Apple Maps was one of the banner features of iOS 6, the app clearly wasn’t ready for prime time.
Apple raced to fix the most glaring errors in the immediate aftermath. But the situation was bad enough that just 11 days after Apple Maps launched, CEO Tim Cook (who, at that time, had only been in the role for a little over a year) published a remarkable open letter apologizing for the half-baked launch.
“At Apple, we strive to make world-class products that deliver the best experience possible to our customers,” Cook wrote. “With the launch of our new Maps last week, we fell short on this commitment. We are extremely sorry for the frustration this has caused our customers and we are doing everything we can to make Maps better.” A month later, iOS software chief Scott Forstall was fired, reportedly for refusing to sign that letter. Apple also reportedly fired a senior manager on the maps team shortly after Forstall left.
From the stumble off the starting line, Apple began the long and winding road to making Maps better. There were small things at first, like fixing the originally distorted Brooklyn Bridge and missing Statue of Liberty. But the app was still far behind when it came to basic features and mapping quality, so Apple started scooping up companies to help fix major holes. One was a crowdsourced location data company. A couple offered transit apps. One was a GPS startup.
Apple chipped away at key features
That helped Apple start chipping away at 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 Apple Maps’ debut. 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 show the company’s spaceship campus, too.)
But the company could only go so far. Apple Maps still wasn’t even close to Google, and that was in part because it was relying 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 to rebuild Maps with its own data. That involved a deep investment into mapping anywhere Apple wanted to improve its coverage. The company started sending out its own mapping vans loaded with lidar arrays, cameras, and an iPad hooked up to a dashboard. It also deploys “pedestrian surveys,” or people on foot, to collect data. Some are equipped with sensor-laden backpacks.
The rollout of the new maps was slow — it started with just the Bay Area of California — but the updated maps looked much better. They made nature far more visible, with green patches more thoroughly highlighting parks and forested areas, and also made it easier to differentiate between roads, thanks to different sizes and additional labels. You can see a few examples in this blog from Justin O’Beirne, who extensively tracked the progress of the improved maps.
It took Apple until January 2020 to say that it had fully covered the US with the new, redesigned Maps (a bit later than its estimate of the end of 2019). But Apple hasn’t just refreshed the way Maps look. In recent releases, it’s also started to add a lot more functionality. Apple introduced a Google Street View-like mode called Look Around so you could 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 very long time, and EV routing, which could be useful if the long-rumored Apple Car ever 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 set to arrive with iOS 16 is multi-stop routing, so you can figure out directions for a trip with multiple stops.
This is all to say that Apple has been quickly ramping up how fast it introduces features to Apple Maps, and I think the product is much the better for it: for me, in Portland, Oregon, Apple Maps became my go-to maps app a few years ago. Yes, I’ll 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 steers me in the right direction.
You’ll notice I said almost. While Apple has caught up to Google Maps on many fronts, it’s still missing the ability to download maps for offline access. Until Apple adds this, I’m going to 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 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 offer bicycle directions in Amsterdam, the cycling capital of the world. And Apple’s redesigned maps are only available in a handful of countries outside of the US, including the UK, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, even though Apple first started talking about the new maps in 2018.
Even though it still has room to grow (Apple, please drop the Yelp integration for reviews!), nearly 10 years after the release of Maps, the company has turned it from a complete joke into pretty usable for many people. If you had told me that 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, as XKCD recently wrote, kind of good now.