View of Apple Maps on the iPhone in landscape.

Hybrid view of Apple Maps on the iPhone in landscape.

Directions on Apple Maps default to driving.

Changing default directions requires digging into iOS settings.

The quality of search results leaves much to be desired. Yelp isn’t enough.

Results for the same search on Google Maps generated nearby results.

Today Apple released iOS 7, the latest version of its operating system for the iPhone and iPad. With the update comes a radical re-design of the user experience on smartphones and tablets, as well as Apple’s second attempt to get its Maps product right. Last year’s debut of an Apple-made map product in iOS 6 was widely recognized as a disaster, despite the equally acknowledged fact that Apple had to stop relying on Google’s Maps at some point.

Over the last year Apple’s Maps have not changed, but the company has made purchases to help improve the product. It bought the popular transit app Embark in late August and bought HopStop in July.

Google didn’t sit idly by, either, even though it was far in the lead. After adding its Google Maps app back to iOS in December 2012 and quickly surpassing 10 million downloads, Google rolled out update after update, like live traffic alerts and transit updates in major cities. It bought traffic navigation app Waze in June.

The Waze purchase was seen as an effort by Google to keep the startup out of the hands of Apple and Facebook. It didn’t really need it: it already had the killer travel apps.

So can Apple catch up?

Today’s Big Update

Let’s just say Google doesn’t have anything to worry about for the time being.

From locating, to discovery, to navigation, Apple Maps trails Google Maps in every respect. If you replaced Apple’s product with Google’s last year, there’s no reason to consider going back, at least until Apple’s begins integrating its recent purchases.

The problems start when you’re looking for a place. While plotting an address is easy enough, finding something nearby isn’t, and the difference between Google and Apple is vast. With Google’s product you can tap on the arrow that plots your location and then type in a phrase like “korean chinese restaurants.” Your results are usually good, and they’re nearby.

Apple’s limited knowledge of the world that makes up its maps is striking at this point. The same experiment with “korean chinese restaurants” displayed results miles away. Unlike Google which has bought point-of-interest databases, as well as Zagat and Frommer’s, Apple doesn’t appear to know much about the world around you, and can’t help you find what you’re looking for as well as Google can. Relying on a third-party like Yelp for location information appears to not be enough.

Then there’s the problem of getting you from point A to B. Apple still does not have transit information in its maps (this will likely be remedied when Embark and HopStop are integrated). In New York, which has a fair amount of iPhone users, the presence of driving directions and absence of subway detail is practically a challenge to get iPhone users to turn to Google.

Apple also makes you leave the Maps app and go to the main settings section to change from “driving” to “walking” directions.

With desktop search, Google organized the online world for users. With Google Maps, the search giant is organizing the physical world in a way that’s informed and immediate. Apple’s year-old Maps is the company’s most unreliable and disappointing product. Despite the other advances the iOS 7 brought to its mobile devices, the upgrade fails to create a Maps product that delivers on the brand’s reputation for excellence and detail.

Perhaps Google Maps can help it find the way.

Tags: android, ios, maps