If you have an iPhone, I invite you to visit the Brooklyn Bridge in Apple Maps. In the 3D view, you can see how it stretches across the East River, hovering above the freeway bordering Manhattan and towering over its namesake park at the tip of Brooklyn. Flip back to 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, Liberty Island’s trees, and the other side of 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 seemed to blend into the ground.
The liquefied Brooklyn Bridge was just one of many irregularities — to put it lightly — in the launch of Apple Maps, a product that celebrates its 10th anniversary later this month. The app had one of the toughest starts of any Apple product in recent memory, but the company has invested enough in it to make it an excellent mapping app and a capable competitor to Google Maps. These changes represent one of the biggest product turnarounds of the past decade.
Apple Maps emerged from a rift between Apple and Google. It might be hard to remember now, but both companies were pretty chummy during the early years of the iPhone. When the iPhone first launched, then-Google CEO Eric Schmidt was on Apple’s board, and Google Maps and YouTube were two of the few apps that came preinstalled on every iPhone.
However, as Google quickly began building its own iOS competitor into Android, Apple and Google became bigger rivals. Maps, in particular, was a sore spot: Google seemed to be withholding critical features from the iOS version of Maps, leaving iPhone users without turn-by-turn directions. Suddenly, Apple had good reason to cut its dependence on Google, and creating its own mapping app was one of its biggest breaks.
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 was mostly just a shadow. In Ireland, Apple mislabeled a park as an airport. A road passed by one of the hanging towers of the Golden Gate Bridge. Even though Apple Maps was one of the flagship features of iOS 6, the app was clearly not ready for prime time.
Apple raced to correct the most glaring errors immediately afterwards. But the situation was serious enough that, just 11 days after the launch of Apple Maps, CEO Tim Cook (who, at the time, had only been in the role for just over a year) issued a remarkable open letter apologizing for the half-baked launch.
“At Apple, we strive to create 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 are extremely sorry for the frustration this has caused our customers and we are doing everything we can to improve Maps. A month later, Scott Forstall, head of iOS software, was fired, apparently for refusing to sign that letter. Apple also reportedly fired a senior Cards team executive shortly after Forstall’s departure.
From the fall of the starting line, Apple began the long and winding road to improve Maps. There were little things in the beginning, like fixing the originally warped Brooklyn Bridge and missing Statue of Liberty. But the app was still far behind in basic functionality and mapping quality, so Apple started picking up companies to help fix major holes. One of them was a crowdsourced location data company. A couple offered Transit Apps. One was a GPS start-up.
This helped Apple start cutting key features. iOS 7 added a prompt asking users to help improve service by sharing their frequently visited locations. Transit directions were finally added with iOS 9 in 2015, three years after Apple Maps debuted. The app got a major overhaul a year later that made navigation much better in iOS 10. Apple added indoor navigation in iOS 11. (It changed the app icon this year there to show off the corporate starship campus, too.)
But the company could only go so far. Apple Maps still wasn’t close to Google, and that was partly because it relied on third-party data for much of what it showed in Maps. So, starting in 2018 with iOS 12 – six years after Maps launched – Apple started rebuilding Maps with its own data. This involved a deep investment in mapping wherever Apple wanted to improve its coverage. The company has started sending its own mapping vans loaded with lidar arrays, cameras and an iPad connected to a dashboard. It also deploys “pedestrian surveys”, or people on foot, to collect data. Some are equipped with backpacks loaded with sensors.
Rolling out the new maps was slow — it started with just the California Bay Area — but the updated maps looked much better. They have made nature much more visible, with green patches emphasizing parks and wooded areas more, and have also made it easier to differentiate between roads, thanks to different sizes and additional labels. You can see some examples in this blog post by Justin O’Beirne, who has been following the progress of improved cards closely.
It took Apple until January 2020 to say that it had fully covered the United States with the new redesigned maps (slightly later than its late 2019 estimate). But Apple didn’t just refresh the look of Maps. In recent versions, it has also started adding a lot more features. Apple introduced a Google Street View-like mode called Look Around so you can see street-level locations in iOS 13 in 2019. It also added real-time transit directions and the ability to share your ETA with friends in this same version.
With iOS 14, Apple introduced bike routes, something Google Maps has also had for a very long time, and EV routing, which could come in handy if the long-rumored Apple Car ever comes to fruition. In iOS 15, Apple added beautiful 3D detail to a handful of cities, augmented reality walking directions (also in a handful of cities), and improved driving directions. And the big Maps feature coming with iOS 16 is multi-stop routing, so you can determine directions for a trip with multiple stops.
All that to say that Apple has quickly accelerated the rate at which it introduces functionality into Apple Maps, and I think the product is much better for it: For me in Portland, Oregon, Apple Maps has become my app of reference maps a few years ago. Yes, I’ll admit the experience is much better because my primary devices of choice are an 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. Although Apple has caught up with 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 save a map of where I’ll be, just in case.
I’m also lucky enough to use Apple Maps while living in a major US metropolitan area. A colleague of mine in Europe is not happy that Apple still does not offer cycling routes in Amsterdam, the cycling capital of the world. And Apple’s redesigned cards are only available in a handful of countries outside the US, including the UK, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, although Apple first started talking about the new card in 2018.
While it still has room to grow (Apple, please ditch the Yelp integration for reviews!), nearly 10 years after Maps was released, the company has transformed it from a full prank in usable enough for a lot of people. If you had told me that would be the case on Maps launch day, I’m not sure I would have believed you. But here we are, and Apple Maps is, like XKCD recently wrote, pretty good now.