If you own an iPhone, I invite you to check out the Brooklyn Bridge on Apple Maps. In the 3D view, you can see exactly how it stretches across the East River, overhanging the freeway at the edge of Manhattan and towering over its namesake park at the tip of Brooklyn. Turn on Apple’s Flyover Tour and the camera will slowly move around the bridge in a satellite view on a bright, sunny day, letting you peek into the surrounding pavilion, over the trees of Liberty Island and across the East River.
Sure, the bridge may look a little blocky from a few angles, but this is clearly the Brooklyn Bridge—a far cry from when Apple Maps first launched and it looked like the bridge was 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 has had one of the roughest launches of any Apple product in recent memory, but the company has invested enough in it to make it a great mapping app and a capable competitor to Google Maps. The changes represent one of the biggest product changes in a decade.
Apple Maps emerged after a rift between Apple and Google. It might be hard to remember now, but the two companies were pretty close 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 directorsand Google Maps and YouTube were two of the few apps that came pre-installed on every iPhone.
However, as Google quickly began building its own iOS competitor in Android, Apple and Google became bigger rivals. Maps, in particular, has been a sore spot: Google appears to be holding back critical features from the iOS version of Maps, leaving iPhone users without turn by turn guidance. Suddenly, Apple had a good reason to remove its dependence on Google, and creating its own mapping app was one of their biggest breakthroughs.
On September 19, 2012, Apple replaced the Google Maps app with its own Apple Maps app. Right from the jump it was an absolute disaster. Statue of Liberty it was mostly just a shadow. In Ireland, Apple has mistakenly labeled a park as an airport. The road passed through one of the the hanging towers of the Golden Gate Bridge. Although Apple Maps was one of the banner features of iOS 6, the app was clearly not ready for prime time.
Apple is racing to fix the most glaring bugs right after. But the situation was bad enough that just 11 days after Apple Maps launched, CEO Tim Cook (who had only been in the role for just over a year at the time) published a remarkable open letter apologizing for the botched launch.
“At Apple, we strive to make world-class products that provide the best possible experience for our customers,” Cook wrote. “With the launch of our new cards last week, we failed to deliver on that commitment. We’re extremely sorry for the disappointment this has caused our customers, and we’re 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 from the Maps team shortly after Forstall’s departure.
From stumbling off the starting line, Apple began the long and winding road to improving Maps. At first there were small things like fixing the originally warped Brooklyn Bridge and the missing Statue of Liberty. But the app was still far behind when it came to basic features and mapping quality, so Apple started bringing in companies to help fix big holes. One was a location data crowdsourcing company. Several offered apps for public transportation. one was a GPS launch.
This helped Apple to start reducing 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 debuted. The app got a major redesign a year later, making navigation much better in iOS 10. Apple added indoor navigation in iOS 11. (That same year, it changed the app icon to also show the company’s spaceship campus.)
But the company could only go so far. Apple Maps wasn’t even close to Google yet, and that was partly because it relied on third-party data for much of what it showed on Maps. So, starting in 2018 with iOS 12 — six years after Maps first launched — Apple began rebuilding Maps with its own data. This includes deep investment in mapping anywhere Apple wanted to improve its coverage. The company began sending out its own mapping vans loaded with lidar arrays, cameras and an iPad connected to the dashboard. It also unfolds “pedestrian studies”, or people on foot to collect data. Some are equipped with sensor-laden backpacks.
The spread of the new cards was slow — it started with California Bay Area only — but the updated maps looked much better. They made nature much more visible, with patches of green highlighting parks and wooded areas more thoroughly, and also made it easier to distinguish roads, thanks to different sizes and additional labels. You can see several examples in this blog by Justin O’Beirnewhich detailed the progress of the improved maps.
It took Apple to January 2020 to say that he covered the entire US with the new, revised maps (slightly later than his prediction of end of 2019). But Apple didn’t just revamp the way Maps looks. In recent releases, it has also started to add 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 public transit directions and the ability to share your ETA with friends in same version.
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 comes to fruition. In iOS 15, Apple added beautiful 3D details to several cities, augmented reality pedestrian directions (also in several 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 trip with multiple stops.
All of this means that Apple is rapidly increasing the speed of adding features to Apple Maps, and I think the product is much 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 the iPhone and MacBook Air, but for what I need, Apple Maps almost always points me in the right direction.
You’ll notice I said almost. While Apple has caught up to 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 large metropolitan area of the US. One of my colleagues in Europe is not happy that Apple does not yet offer directions for cyclists in Amsterdam, the cycling capital of the world. And Apple’s redesigned cards are only available in a few countries outside the US, incl Great Britain, Canada, Australiaand New Zealandalthough Apple first started talking about the new cards in 2018.
Although it still has room to grow (Apple, please ditch the Yelp integration for reviews!), nearly 10 years after the release of Maps, the company has turned it from a total joke to something quite usable for many people. If you had told me this 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, like XKCD recently wrote, okay now.