By Dan Moren
September 18, 2019 8:14 AM PT
13 Features of iOS 13: Maps improvements
If there’s been anything in the history of iOS that one could perhaps legitimately slap with a term as strong as “debacle”, it would probably be Apple’s choice in 2012 to bid goodbye to Google as its location data provider of choice and launch a wholly new version of Maps. It’s a decision that was controversial at the time and still affects Apple today, despite Maps’s steady pace of improvement over the last seven years—yes, at this point, Maps has been without Google longer than it was with it.
But improve Maps has, year after year. Enough so that it’s been a solid competitor to Google Maps for some time now, even if there is still plenty of distrust resonating from some quarters1. People felt burned from what they saw as Apple pulling out the rug from under them, and that kind of trust can be hard to earn back.
Personally, I’ve always bounced back and forth between Apple Maps and Google Maps, but I’ve been impressed by the strides Apple has made, especially in iOS 13. This is the year in which it feels like Apple is finally getting all its fundamentals squared away and started looking at new features.
Note: After the publication of this article, friend (and Rogue Amoeba CEO) Paul Kafasis pointed out that one big thing Google Maps still has over Apple Maps are biking directions. Which is disappointing for a company like Apple, which seems to put so much of an emphasis on being environmentally friendly. Here’s hoping it’s something the company is working on and, ahem, rolls out before long.
There’s a lot to like in iOS 13’s Maps—it’s possibly the biggest update since the app was first launched—but chief among them is the improvements to mapping data. Apple took the unusual step of announcing this initiative more than a year ago, and, in the words of William Gibson, the future is here—it’s just not evenly distributed. Apple says it will roll out to more cities throughout the end of 2019 and internationally in 2020, but right now it’s still hard to tell whether or not the good map fairy has descended upon your area.
I have, however, noticed Apple’s internal mapping game improving. For example, I now have detailed layouts of Boston’s Logan Airport, including where gates and restaurants are, which is super handy. Apple claims it will also provide flight information, though I haven’t yet seen that in action.
But of all the features added in iOS 13, I have two personal favorites. The first is the addition of real-time transit data. Previous version of Maps did have transportation information, but it was pulled from schedules, and anybody who uses public transit regularly knows that, like battle plans, no schedule survives contact with the enemy.
As of iOS 13, however, if you tap on a bus stop or subway station in Apple Maps, you’ll get a list of when you can expect the next bus or train to arrive based on actual live GPS data.2 (You will, however, need to make sure you’re on iOS’s Transit layer, accessible by tapping the Info button in Maps’s top right corner.) This also includes information about delays, all the stops along the route and estimated times of arrival at them, and data on future arrivals.3
The real-time data makes transit directions much more useful, since it gives you concrete information rather than a rough estimate. Of course, that’s something Google Maps has offered for a little while, so it’s another place Apple is playing catch-up, but it’s such a worthwhile addition that it’s hard to make too much fuss now that it’s arrived.
My other favorite feature is the new Share ETA option, which officially arrives in iOS 13.1 at the end of the month. It’s one of those features that Apple does best, taking a common task—letting someone know when you’ll arrive somewhere—and making it simpler. You can tap the Share ETA button when you’re in driving directions4 and it will send an update via iMessage to the contact(s) of your choice, along with the ability for them to tap a link and follow you on your route. It’ll even send them a text when you’re getting close, which is particularly handy if you’re driving. (This feature works great on CarPlay, more on which in a future post.)
Once you reach your destination, Maps stops sharing that information with your contacts, which kind of makes this like a very specific use of Find My Friends-style location sharing. I found it handy when picking up my wife from the subway station, or when one of my podcast compatriots was running late and wanted to let us know how far he was from home.
Not only is Share ETA a useful feature, but Apple does a good job of surfacing it in the Maps app, which means I’m hopeful people will actually find it and use it. In fact, when you set a location as a Favorite (more on which below), you can set it up to automatically share your ETA with someone every time you navigate to that location, if you always want your partner to know when, say, you’re coming home from work. I think it’s a great feature overall: I just hope it adds support for transit and walking in a future update.
Like the more detailed mapping information, the new Look Around feature5, is still only limited to certain locations. It looks good and works well, and definitely seems to match if not exceed Google’s own offering, but it will need to roll out to more places before it’s more than a showy demo. Again, this is a matter of Apple finally bringing itself into line with what Google has had for a long time.
Speaking of Google, search has long been one of Apple’s weak spots compared to Google Maps—no surprise there, given that search is Google’s bread-and-butter. Search seems mildly improved in iOS 13, but you don’t have to go long before you run into some decisions that still seem puzzling. For example, in trying to add my wife’s work to my Favorites—another new iOS 13 feature—it kept insisting that the location was an EV charging station; it took me a while to figure out that was because I’d spelled out the number in her address, using “ten” instead of “10.” Who knew?
In addition to marking favorites, you can now create collections of places that you can share with others, but disappointingly those collections are not synced—it just makes a copy. So you can’t, say, share a list with your partner of places that you want to visit on a vacation. I’m also (perhaps unreasonably?) annoyed at the dearth of custom icons in the Favorites feature, and the fact that I can only use the “Work” icon for my own office. I work at home, Apple. I don’t need a separate work option, but would love to be able to assign that to my wife’s office.
All in all, there’s no question that Maps is greatly improved in iOS 13. As the default mapping option in iOS, Maps has picked up a lot of users over the years, but there are still holdouts who insist on using Google Maps. Will these new features be enough to entice them away? I’m not convinced—as I said up top, trust is hard to rebuild. But there need be no fear about using Apple Maps—it’ll get you there in the end. And I’m hopeful that iOS 14 will offer an opportunity to veer more into new features like Share ETA, rather than just retreading the same ground that Google Maps has already…mapped.
- My wife, for example, still checks everything in Google Maps, and I know she’s not alone. ↩
- Assuming, of course, that where you are has this information and has allowed Apple to access it. ↩
- You can also now create shortcuts that open certain locations, so for example, I can have one titled “When is my next bus” and it will open Maps to my bus stop, but alas, won’t simply tell me that information, which would be nicer. ↩
- Sorry, Transit and Walking directions aren’t compatible yet. ↩
- Don’t call it Street View. ↩
[Dan Moren is the East Coast Bureau Chief of Six Colors. You can find him on Twitter at @dmoren or reach him by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. His latest novel, The Aleph Extraction, is out now and available in fine book stores everywhere, so be sure to pick up a copy.]
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