Apple hopes its Maps do-over gets you where you need to go

But first it needs you to give its homegrown mapping app another shot.

Shara Tibken Former managing editor
Shara Tibken was a managing editor at CNET News, overseeing a team covering tech policy, EU tech, mobile and the digital divide. She previously covered mobile as a senior reporter at CNET and also wrote for Dow Jones Newswires and The Wall Street Journal. Shara is a native Midwesterner who still prefers "pop" over "soda."
Shara Tibken
5 min read
Matt Elliott/CNET

Streets that led to nowhere. Bridges that looked like roller coasters. Cities that ceased to exist.  

That was the state of Apple Maps nearly six years ago. Not anymore. And Apple Maps is about to get even better. For the past four years, Apple has been working on rebuilding its mapping technology from the ground up. Instead of relying on third parties for their maps, Apple has been sending thousands of people in vans out to map the world and collect its own data.

Starting next week with the iOS 12 beta, people in the San Francisco Bay Area will see more detailed information and more accurate navigation in Apple Maps. When iOS 12 rolls out to all iPhone and iPad users, the range covered will encompass all of Northern California -- and it will work on all Maps downloaded since 2012. You don't have to update to iOS 12 to get the new features, and they also will work on Maps on Apple Watches and Macs. The updates were first reported by TechCrunch

Watch this: 4 reasons to choose Apple Maps over Google Maps

Eventually, the entire US will have the better Apple Maps. Apple didn't say how much time it'd take to cover the entire country, but noted it'd be closer to one year than five. It also declined to say if or when it would expand internationally.

The revamp is the biggest thing to happen to Maps since it launched in 2012 and comes at a time when more companies are starting to pay attention to where you are and how location data will serve the future innovations like self-driving cars. Apple's pitching a service that values your privacy. But the company will have to work hard to change that terrible first impression -- one that had most users ditching the app for more reliable alternatives.

"Pretty much everybody I know -- unless they accidentally press Apple Maps or it's a link off an app -- uses Waze or Google Maps," Moor Insights & Strategy analyst Patrick Moorhead said. "Apple has to make us all believers ... that they're capable of biting off a big data project like this."

Apple first released its own homegrown mapping program along with its iOS 6 mobile software and the iPhone 5 in September 2012. The company previously had preloaded Google Maps on its devices, but tensions between the tech giants led Apple to create its own version. The trouble was Apple Maps didn't really work. iOS users immediately noticed problems with everything from navigation to simply searching for an address.

It was a rare, major misstep for the company. Apple CEO Tim Cook publicly apologized for the problems, fired the company's head of software and worked to improve the mapping app. Since that time, Maps has become more reliable, but experts say it still lags behind Google Maps.

And while Apple says its Maps is the most frequently used mapping app on iOS devices, that's largely because of China, where Google Maps doesn't work, Creative Strategies analyst Carolina Milanesi said. Apple also benefits from the thousands of apps that by default link to Apple Maps when giving iPhone users directions. According to a Creative Strategies poll from last year, 45 percent of iPhone owners in the US used Google Maps and 18 percent used Google's Waze app. Only 36 percent used Apple Maps.

"People say, 'Hey, they already lost to Google,'" Milanesi said. "But I don't think it's a question of winning or losing to Google. They do obviously have users. They have a service, and they need to continue to improve it."

That's exactly what Apple's trying to do.

Rebuilt from the ground up

Apple started rebuilding Maps from the ground up about two years after it first launched. It previously relied on partners like TomTom and OpenStreetMap for the core maps, but their directions largely were based on driving directions and didn't work well for transit or even walking. If there was a problem, it took a long time to resolve instead of Apple being able to roll out a fix almost instantly.

At the time Maps first became available, Apple wasn't sure it even wanted to be in the mapping business, Apple executives told TechCrunch. But it's clear that maps aren't just about simple navigation anymore. They'll be key to new technologies like self-driving cars and even augmented reality, and maps enable entirely new industries and tools. If Apple wants to be a part of that, it has to control its own technology.

"We said, 'Where do we want to take Maps? What are the things that we want to do in Maps?'" Apple Senior Vice President Eddy Cue told TechCrunch. "We realized that, given what we wanted to do and where we wanted to take it, we needed to do this ourselves."

iOS 12 public beta: The best features

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Apple said building its own maps gives it more control over the maps -- like focusing more on walking and public transit. It also can roll out changes a lot faster and innovate more quickly. Anything it wants to do will no longer require working with a third party. Controlling more and more of its technology in house has been a big focus for Apple. It even makes many of its own iPhone components instead of buying them from suppliers.

Parking lots and garages will become more detailed, and so will pedestrian data like walking directions. Addresses will get more precise, such as knowing the main entrance to a building is actually around the corner from that building's actual street address. And there will be more details for parks, rivers, swimming pools and other green spaces. Apple will even match the font used on the real-life street and transit signs.

Owning your location data

One big benefit of Apple Maps over Google Maps could be privacy. Apple encrypts data collected by its mapping vans, and it uses artificial intelligence to blur faces and license plates. If something seems off, Apple will send humans to check routes or specific locations.

While Apple Maps makes predictions for the navigational routes you'll need to go to regular places like your home or the office, that's kept private. When you choose a route, the data is anonymized before it's sent to Apple. The company doesn't build a profile about you, keep your specific route history or associate your routes or map data with your Apple ID.

"We collect data -- when we do it -- in an anonymous fashion, in subsections of the whole, so we couldn't even say that there is a person that went from point A to point B," Cue told TechCrunch.

Google, for its part, says tracking location history lets it give Google Map users more relevant results and make predictions that are helpful, such as warning you to leave earlier to get to work on time if traffic is bad. Starting this week, Google Maps can give food and drink recommendations based on your preferences. And Google says users can delete their location history whenever they want. But until you do that, it's gathered a lot of information about you.

Apple has used this argument to bolster its popular product line. Getting people to use Apple Maps again may be the real test of whether people really care about their privacy. 

First published July 29 at 3:16 p.m. PT.
Update at 4:43 p.m. PT: Adds details about Google Maps. 

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