Maps: The next Apple vs. Google war

The iPhone 5 and iOS 6 will mark a new step in the Apple versus Google battle for smartphone dominance, and this time it's about maps. In iOS 6, which arrives September 19, Apple has ditched Google as its provider for the built-in Maps app and has created its own mapping engine.

It's unclear why Apple chose not to use Google's mapping data for iOS Maps in the first place. Some believe this is related to Google increasing fees for using its maps data. Apple has acquired several mapping technology companies to build its new Maps app, which is based mainly on data from TomTom.

Google will also probably introduce its own mapping app for iOS (as it did with YouTube, which was also removed as a default app for the iPhone). Unless Apple wants to deal with the competition authorities, it will have to approve the app. So until then, how do Apple's maps stack up against Google Maps?

What's new in iOS 6 Maps

Perhaps the biggest improvement users will notice with the new iOS Maps is free visual and voice-assisted turn-by-turn directions. This feature was notably missing from the iPhone and has been present on Google Maps for Android for a while. You also get real-time traffic conditions to help calculate your ETA, and the Flyover feature allows you to see photo-realistic and interactive 3D views of several dozen metro areas.

There are also smaller but notable improvements such as the ability to get Apple's voice assistant Siri to provide directions. There's Yelp integration for local searches, so, for example, you can see a restaurant's ratings before you go there to eat. For pedestrian navigation, there is a new feature that orients the map depending on the direction you are facing, so you don't go the wrong way.

Apple Maps vs. Google Maps

Put next to Google Maps, Apple's maps look great. They are crisp and clean and use resolution-independent vector images. This means that, unlike Google Maps, where each part of the map is a bitmap image loaded adaptively, Apple Maps are smoother to zoom and pan. With Google, map data is formed of various images at different zoom levels, so when you zoom you get a blurred image that is incrementally repainted upon loading.

In Apple Maps, all roads and labels are mathematical lines instead of fixed graphics, so you can rotate the map whichever way you wish, and the labels will be dynamically reoriented and geographical map data loaded in the background, creating a smoother experience. Due to this method, however, Apple Maps display much less information in terms of street names or directions at wider zoom levels.

There are also a couple of notable missing features from Apple Maps, which currently exist in Google Maps. The main missing feature is public transportation directions (there's a tab for such directions in iOS 6 Maps, but, when tapped, it prompts you to download navigation apps that support it). Transportation direction data is open and free to use, but this feed is maintained by Google, and so Apple is probably reluctant to depend on it.

Google's not-so-secret advantage

Another feature missing from Apple's new Maps is street-level imagery from Google Street View, which was present in the previous iOS version of Google Maps. It's possible not too many users will miss this feature, especially given that turn-by-turn directions are now present, but Street View could be Google's secret weapon in future maps wars.

When it first started building its maps, Google relied on location data from other companies--much like Apple is doing now, with TomTom. But now Google is using its expansive Street View service to create unique maps with comprehensive information, by mashing together existing data with information from street-level imagery.

It's called Ground Truth and it's probably one of Google's most ambitious projects. In Ground Truth, Google software analyzes Street View photos to identify relevant information such as street signs, speed limits, addresses, business names, and rights of way at road junctions, and matches such information to the physical world--thus creating more accurate maps. Meanwhile, Google is also working on its own vector-based maps. But this could be a lengthy process, because it has to optimize its maps for multiple platforms at once.

For comprehensive coverage of the Android ecosystem, visit Greenbot.com.

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