Michael McConnell, October 2, 2012
With iOS 6 Apple tried to go it alone when it came to mapping. They made a good effort, but the app is a mess. There are problems with search, imprecise locations (last night Maps told Josh San Francisco was in Quebec), and satellite imagery with cloud cover. This caused a kerfuffle, leading to a Tumblr site and endless amounts of consternation in the tech press. Most of this was as former Apple exec Jean-Louise Gasée called it, “self-inflicted.” They over-promised; it is as simple as that.
So Tim Cook had to apologize and even went so far as to suggest a few alternatives. Though many people have been flocking to Mapquest, he actually mentions the single best GPS app, Waze. Waze is already providing the road conditions reporting for Maps.app, but offers so much more that you’re better off using the app by itself. Waze doesn’t have the visual polish of an Apple app, but it seems that the new Maps.app is only about the polish these days.
Getting You There One Turn At A Time
Many people started using GPS apps because the original incarnation of Maps.app (until iOS 5) didn’t do tun-by-turn navigation. For short walking directions, it wasn’t too bad, but trying to get somewhere without a passenger in the car was about as bad as texting and driving. When people finally gave up on Maps.app, many turned to Waze. It offers crowd sourced data, is based on open source maps, and allows for users to update maps they find with problems. Waze adds a social layer, offering points to people who have mapped roads, giving you cooler icons and other rewards. In its early incarnation, there were some routing problems, but in the last two years it’s become one of the best apps in the App Store. (Not to mention that it’s still free, subsidized by local advertising.)
This quality is why Waze is mentioned in Tim Cook’s letter, and why it should be your go-to app for driving directions. Waze learns your routes, so when you drive the same way repeatedly it defaults to your most common route. What really may sell the app, though, is the feature that automatically reroutes you if your ETA has changed by more than 5 percent of the original estimated time. If you have a long commute, this can come in handy and save you from having an awkward conversation with the boss. If you’re a gas price hunter, Waze has also added a feature that allows you to scout and report the lowest pump prices.
Maps.app has taken Waze data and integrated it into their turn-by-turn navigation service, even offering the reroute feature. Yet they come up short in creating the same experience. Reporting is a key example of how Maps.app falls short. There doesn’t seem to be any way for users to report police, accidents, construction or other possible obstacles in the area. Maps.app has a glaring issue with search, as trying to search for a commercial location can lead you to a location miles away. Waze, on the other hand, not only has integrated search, but it also allows you to use data from search engines. In addition to the Yelp data integrated with Waze., Bing, Google, Foursquare, and the Yellow Pages are also included.
Both apps are missing transit directions. Maps.app will allow you to be redirected to other apps you have installed, but there doesn’t seem to be a clear recommendation on which app to use. Unless your city has its own app, you’re likely going to have to do some trial and error or use maps.google.com in Mobile Safari. For walking directions, Maps.app is still the winner, though it seems to be missing some of the trails and parks data that was in Google’s data. Maps.app also gets Siri integration, which could be an essential feature for some. The fact that Maps.app is the default handler for navigation on the phone is going to be a problem until the mapping data gets better.
Map, map on my lap, who has the prettiest app?
There isn’t anyone who can beat Apple’s designers. Even with their divisive forays into skeuomorphism, there just isn’t any better company when it comes to making software look pretty. It should be no surprise that Maps.app is not only prettier than its previous incarnation, it’s prettier than any GPS app in the App Store, and that includes Waze. Flyover and 3D maps were the centerpiece of the new Maps.app keynote overage, and they drive the visual flair. However, unless you’re in one of the cities with Flyover, this isn’t in the cards. You do get a sort of isometric view of the map, but it isn’t all that special.
Maps.app retains the high level map view for choosing your route, which may be one of its most usable feature. Waze doesn’t offer this; instead giving you a short description of the route, but not much more to go on. The highway sign style used to deliver the turn-by-turn directions in Maps.app is a bit more flashy than the simple icons and text in Waze.
Waze uses a more general GPS interface. You don’t get a detailed picture of your destination; you don’t even get a satellite view of your route. You get a map and the icons, and nothing else. It may be spartan, but that isn’t the problem. It could be argued that while Maps.app has the prettiest interface, that interface has almost nothing to do with actually using the app. Waze, on the other hand, is built around driving from point A to point B, and getting you the relevant information along the way. In addition to popping up and reading notifications about traffic incidents in your area, you can also report incidents hands-free.
If Maps.app was Apple’s answer to Google Earth, people wouldn’t be so harsh about its failings. The design is great, and seeing landmarks in Flyover is fantastic. However, as an actual GPS app, its UI is a bit short on features. Waze presents a lot of information in a simple way, and has a lot of UI bells and whistles to ensure that you can safely interact while driving.
TL;DR Just tell us which is better!
If this was 2007, everyone would be falling over themselves about Maps.app, despite its shortcomings. It’s a gorgeous app with a ton of potential. However, it’s a replacement for a crippled version of Google Maps, one that people have a bit of Stockholm syndrome for. Waze was a better choice before the switchover. For pedestrians Maps.app comes out ahead, but only because Waze is so focused on drivers. iOS as a platform now has a glaring problem — there isn’t a default transit app. Waze doesn’t do this, and Maps.app recommends a slew of apps without a lot of guidance. I think transit riders may want to stick to Google via Mobile Safari for now and hope that they deliver an app to the App Store soon. Maps.app is beautiful, but kind of vapid. Waze isn’t just smarter, it’s easier to get along with as well.Follow @macgasm