Thursday, September 20, 2012

What Apple Took Away Google Gave Back

What Apple Took Away Google Gave Back
I decided to take a leap of faith, become an early adopter and upgrade my iPhone 4 to iOS6 (many of my apps had pending updates I couldn't make with the old OS). This is a screen shot of Google Maps on my iPhone 4 after upgrading to the new iOS6. It shows bike routes in the UW-Madison area, which my phone didn't show before.

That statement requires some explaining, since Apple removed the Google Maps app from the new iPhone and its OS, substituting a map app of its own, created in partnership with TomTom and Open Streets Map. It has some nice features (including vector maps that don't need a data connection to zoom or scroll locations, as well as turn-by-turn navigation) and a lot of potential -- but it's not there yet. An incomplete and klunky location database. No transit, traffic or bike path info. (The old Google Maps app for the iPhone also lacked the latter three, though they have been implemented on Android phones for some time, but it did have a great database.)

So I was immediately missing my Google Maps app. What could I do? I did the only thing I could do: I went to the web version through the Safari browser and bookmarked it with an icon on my home screen. That's when I got some pleasant surprises: 1) The web version works just fine as a GPS map in its mobile incarnation; and 2) It has transit, traffic and bike route information, the stuff that was missing from the iPhone version.

I don't know if this has been an available option for some time, or whether Google just pulled this together in time for their getting dumped by Apple on the iPhone 6 (if this was out there earlier, they sure didn't promote it, because I frequently searched for availability of bike information on the iPhone). Either way, I now have the best of both possible worlds. I'll keep checking the Apple map app for improvements. I may use the turn-by-turn directions now and then. And the vector maps will be a godsend when I'm out of cellphone range and without a data connection. Plus, with the upgrade, I can now use the volume button on my phone as a shutter button for the camera -- a much more natural, camera-like position, at least for horizontal photos.

Update the day after: Accessing these features can be a bit confusing to begin with. First, make sure you're in the mobile version of Google Maps. That brings up the toolbar you see at the top. Click on the menu icon at far right. One of the selections is Layers. That's where the magic is: Satellite, Terrain, Traffic, Bicycling.
Google seems to be adding features as we speak. I swear Terrain wasn't there last night, because I looked. Now it is. It's almost as they set up a bit of a trap for Apple to fall into once Apple announced they were dumping Google. Google has set up a sort of mapping home away from home for all the millions of iPhone 5 early adopters who will be missing their Google Maps and are going through the same process I did.
Don't get me wrong: Apple's new vector maps are the way to go in mobile maps. The turn by turn navigation is great for when you want it. I have no doubt it will evolve into a robust system. But Google seems to be forcing Apple to spend a lot of resources to playing catch-up. This may actually be a case of healthy competition: Apple will also force Google to develop a vector map system. Which means that, in the long run, whatever phone someone has, there will be some damn good mapping apps available.

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