Daniel Eran Dilger in San Francisco
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How Apple’s new vector-based Maps leave Google Maps looking jittery

Daniel Eran Dilger

Apple isn’t just declaring its independence from Google Maps with its new in-house backend for Maps in iOS 6. It has developed a superior way to deliver map data that relies on resolution independent vectors rather than Google’s multiple zoom levels of bit mapped images.

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The previous segment, “Apple wants to wipe Google off the map with iOS 6,” described Apple’s iOS 6 strategy of cutting ties with Google’s map servers and instead powering its own iPhone and iPad Maps client apps (as well as all third party apps that use iOS’ built-in mapping services) with mapping servers it manages and operates on its own.

Apple’s new mapping services powering the revamped Maps app iOS 6 are based on a series of partnerships, acquisitions and internal work that are intended to not just replace the existing maps data Google has been serving up for iOS users over the past half decade, but to also expand and improve upon the features available.

Vectors are the new map

The first primary technology advancement Apple will be introducing for iOS 6 Maps relates to the use of resolution independent vector images. This allows users to smoothly zoom in with a pinch of the fingers, while details and labels pop up as space allows. Google’s existing map services are based on a series of fixed zoom levels, so when users zoom in, they see the existing map turn into a blurry image that is incrementally repainted with the next zoom level as it downloads (below, during a refresh).

Each fixed zoom level of Google’s map data is made up of bitmapped graphics. That results in labels (such as neighborhood or street names) being fixed in position and orientation, so when the map is rotated (such as by the compass), the labels may appear upside down. Zoomed in or out, labels may also be left illegible by rough-looking scaling or obscured by overlay information such as the direction path drawn on top of the map.

Google does a pretty good job of quickly serving up replacement map tiles as users zoom in and out, but this process can be complicated by slow data networks that don’t have the bandwidth to serve up tiles fast enough.

Modern iOS devices do a pretty good job of caching a bit of Google’s map data so you can load a map of the area you will be visiting and then navigate around using GPS even if you lack a mobile connection. However, while Google does support offline maps on its own Android platform, there’s no way to load a specific set of maps at arbitrary zoom levels in iOS Maps, so you can only load up a relatively small area and hope the system doesn’t automatically discard any of the maps you want to view offline.

When using to vector maps, all coastlines, roads, labels and other data are represented as mathematical lines rather than as fixed graphic images. This enables Apple to allow users to freely rotate the map however they want; the text of map labels dynamically reorients itself to remain legible. When users zoom in or out, the text size of labels scales smoothly, because it is being rendered live as dynamic text, not as a graphic image that includes text and must be “repainted” for every zoom level.

I can see for miles and miles

Even better, highly efficient vector maps allows Apple to load up a large area of maps you can continue to zoom into even after you’ve entered Airplane Mode. This means that if you load a map of San Francisco then turn off network access, you can still zoom in and out all over a very large surrounding area without getting Google’s zoomed in jaggies and blank grid spaces.

Apple’s iOS 6 Maps app still complains when there’s no data connection, but it will let you continue to zoom in and out of nearby areas you haven’t even previously visited, because it can continue to smoothly render the efficiently lean vector map data it has loaded.

After loading San Francisco and going offline, one can browse over 300 miles (480 km) south (nearly to Los Angeles), 335 miles (540 km) north to the Oregon border, and 300 miles east to the middle of Nevada, down to the primary city street level (in sharp detail but with few road labels).

Attempting the same task on an existing iPad, Google’s bitmapped maps run out of steam just 35 miles (56 km) away in Palo Alto (below), and on the edge of its cached area, images degrade poorly when zooming, with blurry text and jagged road lines.

Apple’s new vector maps can deal far more gracefully with a lost data connection, allowing you to zoom in and see details with clarity, even when you can’t load local details such as secondary road names (below, the same area offline).

After loading San Francisco and turning off data, Apple’s vector data could coast offline all the way down to LA (380 miles, 611 km) before degrading to the point of not being useful (below top, vs. restored data connection below bottom).

A brief history of Google Maps and iOS

Apple originally partnered with Google to deliver maps on the iPhone, but is now taking over iOS Maps entirely, launching its own mapping servers at the critical point where vector graphics (among other technologies) have the potential to revolutionize mobile maps. Here’s a brief overview of how Apple’s partnership with Google has unraveled.

Google acquired Where 2 Technologies in 2004 to release its initial web app for online maps, relying heavily on JavaScript and AJAX technologies to enable map zooming and exploration features on the web that nobody had ever seen before.

Over the next two years, Google rapidly enhanced its Google Maps website and began incorporating a variety of unique features including plotting directions between multiple directions, as well as adding building outline models and subway stops for some cities. In 2006, Google launched Maps for Mobile, a mobile Java app intended for use with mobile phones (at a time when mobile devices didn’t have very functional web browsers).

The next year, Apple debuted the original iPhone, running a custom Maps client app making intuitive use of touch controls for navigation and zoom. Apple’s Maps app, developed in-house using the iPhone’s native Cocoa Touch, relied upon Google’s open API for obtaining map data, but presented and navigated that data in an entirely new way.

Within the first year, Apple’s iOS Maps app added the ability to pinpoint the user’s location, using GPS or WiFi/cell tower geolocation. In late 2008 Apple introduced iOS 2.2 with support for Google’s StreetView as well as adding walking and transit directions. In 2009′s iOS 3, Apple added APIs for developers to incorporate mapping features within their own apps.

With the release of iPad in 2010, Apple added Google’s terrain view to the iPad-only iOS 3.2, but never brought that feature to iPhone users. In last year’s iOS 5, Apple added alternative route options and Google’s real time traffic information.

Over the same five years, Google added a variety of new features to its web and mobile mapping apps, many of which Apple did not support in its native Maps app. In fact, as Google focused its attention on delivering Android as a competitor to the iPhone, it began launching new map features exclusively on Android as differentiating features iOS didn’t have.

For example, a primary marketing feature of Android 1.0 was its new compass support, which Google demonstrated as a way to navigate StreetView images by orbiting a phone around oneself awkwardly at arm’s length, making for a cool demonstration, if not a very useful feature. Apple’s own support for compass features and StreetView followed a few months later in iOS 2.2, but Apple used the digital compass to orient maps or drive the new Compass app, leaving StreetView as something you’d navigate with your finger.

In 2009 Google launched Android 2.0 with a series of exclusive mapping features, including voice prompted, turn-by-turn navigation features; voice search; searching for items along a plotted route and 3D models (below).

Apple appeared set to adopt those features as it had the previous year. In late 2009, a Google spokesperson told AppleInsider “Apple is a close partner. Millions of users experience Google Maps on the iPhone. We will continue to work with Apple to bring innovation, including Latitude and Navigation, to users but you’ll have to speak to Apple about availability.”

Instead, Apple began plotting its own next move in maps, no doubt concerned that additional dependence upon Google would eventually put it in a very difficult competitive position.

Google continued to tie its map services into other related businesses, including its Yelp-like Local search and Loopt-like Latitude services. It has also added or enhanced direction information tailored to public transit, walking or biking, added 3D building models, offline maps and has announced 3D renderings of some cities. Apple has selectively ignored many of these features in its own iOS Maps app as it worked to put together its own mapping system.

Apple puts together its own map team

Since 2009, Apple has only acquired a dozen different smaller companies. A quarter of these highly selective, strategic moves involved mapping companies. In July 2009 Apple bought Placebase, followed by Poly9 the next July. In August 2011, it bought C3 Technologies, known for work in developing 3D images based on aerial or satellite images.

It’s notable that most of Apple’s other known acquisitions were rapidly converted into key product features, from Lala (which made its way into iTunes Match) to Quattro Wireless (iAd) to Polar Rose (camera face recognition), IMSense (iPhone HDR) and Siri. This helped support the prediction that Apple was intently interested in replacing Google’s maps services.

But Apple didn’t just want to clone Google Maps. It made plans to replace it with superior technology. By delivering maps as vector graphics, rather than static bit maps, Apple realized it could enhance the navigation experience and take fuller advantage of the graphics capabilities of its newest mobile devices.

In addition to smoothly accommodating any zoom level without getting jaggies and having to download new tile data, vector map data can also draw text labels very legibly in a way that accommodates the drawing of additional layers of data on top, such as labeled businesses, building outlines, and direction path lines that don’t obscure map information.

Users can also spin the map with a two-fingered rotational gesture. As the map rotates, labels can turn to remain legible. A compass icon points north; tapping it reorients the map to face north (below: two rotated views of Market Street, San Francisco. Map labels reorient to remain legible as you rotate the map; below top is rotated so it shows a compass icon, bottom image faces north).

A new battle for Maps territory

Google is also working on its own next generation Google Maps that makes use of vectors, but it has a more difficult job because it is targeting several major platforms: the web, which relies upon the experimental new MapsGL enhancements of WebGL; Android, which has a native JavaME-like platform; and its existing public API, which is rooted in how Google Maps has worked in the past.

Apple can introduce entirely new technologies very rapidly because it only has to optimize for one platform: iOS Cocoa Touch. Apple isn’t serving up a public web version of its own maps as Google does, so it isn’t constrained by the limits of web-based technologies.

Apple does have a public API for iOS Maps, but third parties don’t just request raw map data through it; Apple’s iOS takes care of the underlying complexities when a third party app requests to plot a location on a map, so it’s not an extremely difficult task for Apple to adjust those APIs to work with its own map data rather than Google’s.

When iOS 6 ships later this fall, Apple will essentially take away about half of Google’s mobile maps users, and virtually all of its iOS users. When Apple ships its own Cocoa version of Maps for Mac OS X users, Google will likely lose another valuable segment of desktop users as well. This new competition should push Google to deliver mapping tools that iOS and OS X users will want to go out of their way to download and use.

At the same time, Apple is now on the brink of inheriting a huge new business, one that will require it to remain competitive in maps if it expects to retain users’ attentions. Last fall, the company did virtually the same thing with Siri voice assistance, jumping from dead last in mobile voice services to being the top vendor with a comfortable lead that Google and Microsoft are now struggling to match with their own simpler, basic voice recognition systems.

Jumping to the next generation of maps with vector-based graphics will give Apple a similar technological lead over today’s existing mapping servers. But vectors aren’t the only new technology Apple is leveraging to launch its new iOS 6 Maps service, as the next segment will explore.

15 comments

1 lucidthinker { 08.03.12 at 12:51 pm }

Another fine article. It will be interesting to see how the GPS vendors react to Apple essentially destroying the market for not only standalone GPS units but navigation apps on the iPhone.

2 andybak { 08.04.12 at 12:42 am }

I hate to undermine the entire premise of your article but Google Maps on Android switched to vectors nearly two years ago:

http://www.i-programmer.info/news/145-mapping-a-gis/1725-google-maps-5-for-android-goes-vector.html

http://googlesystem.blogspot.co.uk/2010/12/vector-based-google-maps-for-android.html

You might be able to salvage some content but it will be hard to salvage the breathless adulation for this ‘superior technology’ in the ‘next generation of maps’.

Oh. Maybe a touch more research next time?

[The article isn't about Apple beating Google to rush a new technology to market. It's about Apple erasing Google as a maps partner, and introducing new technologies (including vectors) that iOS users have never had access to. So Android isn't relevant at all. - Dan ]

3 dilder { 08.04.12 at 6:46 am }

Let me get this straight.

You write a long, exhaustively “researched” article complete with screenshots extolling the virtues of vector maps, and claim that they are the next generation of mapping technology, will revolutionize everything (again), and will help Apple leapfrog Google. The Apple-built maps app in iOS indeed will be switching from bitmaps to vectors, but nowhere in the process of writing this article do you even bother to do some research and find out that Google Maps on Android had vector maps since 2010?

So this supposed great leap to the next generation is really just playing catchup?

You’re a fraud; a partisan hack who’s constructed some kind of fantasy version of reality where Apple is never wrong and is always planning some kind of masterstroke that will put it in its rightful place atop the entire fucking planet.

[Or perhaps, you are a frustrated Android fan who has go into hysterics anytime you misinterpret clear facts.

The facts are that Apple invited Google to the iOS platform and allowed it intimate access to the very valuable iOS user base that no other vendor has.

Now that Google has introduced its own copy of IOS, Apple is pulling its plug and substituting its own new mapping technologies. Google is now losing half of its audience, and certainly a much large proportion of valuable users.

So the news isn't about a pissing match that you relish, but rather about Apple cutting Google off at the knees, something you'd apparently rather distract attention away from by calling me names.

That doesn't make you any less of a fool. - Dan]

4 stevelee { 08.04.12 at 3:09 pm }

I’ve read that we will lose features in the process, that we’ll still need to use Google maps for taking public transportation. What about satellite view? I find it helpful sometimes to see what the area looks like, even if it is just the view from above. I’ve also read that without the info coming in from iPhones, Google maps will have less accurate traffic information, so even sticking with them, we still lose some functionality.

[Stay tuned for the upcoming articles addressing these issues. Also, consider that Safari 1.0 didn't have all the features of IE for Mac when it first came out. Also, Apple now makes more money from the iPhone alone that Google makes on everything. I'm pretty sure Apple can keep up in areas where it wants to race. - Dan]

I can see why Apple might find this a commercially attractive move. For the user, unless Apple has more rabbits to pull right out of its hat than we know about at this point, functionality could suffer in several ways. If we stick with iOS5 on our devices, will we able to keep things as they are now? We’ll see. If so, I might do that, and delay an iPhone upgrade until after I’m through traveling for a while. (And it might not be that much of a delay, since demand for the new phone might not calm down enough for me to walk into a store and get one until late November anyway.) Maybe I’ll know a lot more after Daniel’s next article.

5 andybak { 08.05.12 at 4:40 pm }

No, I’m putting up with you framing this as an Apple vs Google thing. You’ve written an article that was poorly researched. You’re trying to retain a bit of credibility by arguing that we’re pro-Google fanboi’s but you’re the first one to get abusive!

This is just silly. There’s a nugget of interest in this piece but you need to pull it and rewrite it in the light of the fact that vector maps are not the brand-new innovation you thought they were.

[Don't tell me what you thought I think. That's a little too much hubris even for an "everyone's biased if they don't share my ideology-fantasies" web commenter. I've been using Google's WebGL maps in Safari for a few months. Google's implementation is such that it makes a brand new MacBook Air struggle (likely a constraint of the browser and immature new web technologies). Apple's implementation is aimed exclusively (for now) at iOS devices, and I highlighted some of the clear benefits this provides.

Whether Google has put some of these things on Android doesn't matter to iOS users because it's irrelevant to them. What part of that do you not understand? Whats "new" here is that Apple is joining the mapping world and Google is getting half of the rug pulled out from under it (and it's getting shared with the companies Google has tried to run out of business with their own data, like Yelp - Dan ]

Yes it’s new on iOS and maybe Google could have pushed harder to get vector maps in the Map app before this point. However we don’t know whether it was Google withholding functionality or Apple not bothering to implement it. If you want to play at journalism then go off and find some info about THAT.

[Actually we do know. Google would obviously have wanted Apple to adopt its technologies the same way it had been with StreetMaps (Apple developed its own client to get around the Flash dependance Google had--similar to Youtube videos--indicating that Apple though it was pretty important to support).

If you had read the article, you'd have seen QUOTES FROM GOOGLE stating a giddy expectation that Apple was going to use Android 2.0 Maps Navigation features. I had written earlier (based on such expectations) that Apple was likely to adopt Navigation and other new features just as it had added StreetView and transit directions and other add ons. But that didn't happen for reasons that are now certainly no longer mysterious. - Dan]

6 nashw { 08.05.12 at 7:51 pm }

Another brilliantly written piece Dan- even though the posters above seem to have skimmed over the article to jump the gun, forgetting about a little thing called context.

7 gus2000 { 08.05.12 at 11:10 pm }

Boy, you Google grokers sure have a thin skin. The article highlights the differences between iOS Google Maps and iOS 6 maps, but you read “Google sucks and Apple is cool.” Since I’m not wearing Google Goggles, I read “Apple is going to drink Google’s mapping milkshake, here’s why”.

My concern with this plan is over Apple’s “mapping data fragmentation”. Are users of different mobile platforms really going to be looking at different traffic data? I’m guessing the actual traffic won’t be different (but that would be a nice iOS 7 feature?) . Could I get different weather, too?

Google has a broad array of databases they can add to their maps, since they are generally in the search-and-index business, but Apple has no such data except via search partners. Google also offers an API for people to add their own overlays for maps; will Apple have access to those, or will content owners be asked to submit data to many places?

8 gavrojames { 08.06.12 at 2:32 pm }

Daniel, can you address why in iOS6 the Maps app seems to be missing public transit times? Do you think this is purposeful, i.e. just rely on 3rd party developers for this info, or is this because it will just takes more time to provide that? I already use the Transporter app, so maybe its not really an issue, but I imagine 3rd party apps in some cities is not as good as Google’s public transit info embed in the Maps app. Thanks again for the informative article.

9 The Mad Hatter { 08.08.12 at 1:04 am }

Most everyone missed a major point.

The increased competition in the online map segment will benefit consumers, no matter what device or OS that they use. Competition is good.

For customers anyway. It isn’t so hot for corporations. Just ask Microsoft…

Wayne
http://madhatter.ca

10 Brau { 08.09.12 at 12:17 am }

I don’t know about anyone else here, but all I see is history repeating:

Once Apple and MicroSoft were cozy while Gates was developing Clarisworks on the Mac, but the moment MS released Windows and became a direct competitor, their once mutually beneficial relationship became adversarial. As MicroSoft grew more powerful, soon the Mac suffered badly because the standards MS pioneered in documents and web standards conveniently left the Mac behind at every turn. It forced Steve Jobs to make a deal with the devil just to get IE on the Mac, but as anyone who used it knows, it was always laggard and second class to the windows variant. Apple barely survived.

Fast forward to the release of Android and you could replace MicroSoft with Google in the above paragraph, and it would remain relevant.

This time, Apple has a far greater thing going with their new iOS devices and they simply cannot leave their success in the hands of Google or anyone else. Mapping, directions, media, and interconnectivity are paramount to people buying smartphones and, as anyone who has used Google Maps on the latest Android devices can attest, Apple is once again being left behind in the GoogleMaps feature party. They simply must act this time before it undermines their value in the eyes of consumers.

In the end, Safari works best on iOS, GoggleMaps works best on Android, and Bing Maps works best on Windows8. No surprise. No one is to blame, nobody is wiping out or killing anyone, nor dreaming of world domination. They are simply protecting their assets so they can continue to …

… make mere billions.

11 gslusher { 08.12.12 at 7:13 am }

@Brau:

“Once Apple and MicroSoft were cozy while Gates was developing Clarisworks on the Mac …”

Microsoft had nothing to do with the development of ClarisWorks. You can read the history of ClarisWorks (later, AppleWorks, after the Apple II program, which I also had and used) by one of its creators at

http://groups.csail.mit.edu/mac/users/bob/clarisworks.php/

Perhaps you’re confusing ClarisWorks with Microsoft Works, which came out first. When I bought my first Mac (PowerBook 100) in late 1992, I bought Microsoft Works with it. I later (the next year, I think) switched to ClarisWorks. I still use AppleWorks 6–last updated by Apple in 2004–every day.

12 Mike { 08.13.12 at 8:14 pm }

To be honest, the loss of a native Maps app isn’t a big one, mainly that Google already has a mobile Maps website that wasn’t there in 2007 for iPhone users. So while it may appear that Apple has taken an option off the table, it really hasn’t. It’s just advocating to be more open than simply using Google’s solutions for directions everywhere on everything.

13 Brau { 08.19.12 at 10:42 pm }

@ gslusher

Thanks for the correction. I had a brain hiccup. It *has* been twenty years now. Hard to believe.

BTW: MicroSoft Works is an oxymoron, isn’t it?

14 kdaeseok { 08.27.12 at 2:27 pm }

Understandable move from Apple. Its users will suffer for a while, but that’s that.

15 Charles L { 08.29.12 at 6:34 pm }

Apples new maps are nice, if you are in the US, and I’m guessing Europe. In Japan they are an embarrassment. Horrible, bad don’t being to describe it. Utterly useless is closer. The maps are horribly incomplete. No information on train lines, stations and exits. Lots of building information is missing. Local search is a disaster.

I heard in China they have a different partner to make the maps better. They need one here in Japan too. I have a feeling there are going to be millions of angry Japanese after upgrading to iOS 6 or the new iPhone.

[Another problem I saw: there's no option to see maps in Japan in English/Roman letters. When I was there in June, I could at least make my way around using Google Maps. If I had iOS 6, I would have been pretty SOL, at least in its current form.

There's similar problems in other places, both for Apple and Google. Try finding addresses in Cancun using either system, for example, or try to search for places in Tel Aviv, where Google's maps gives you a mix of Hebrew, English and sometimes Arabic, so you search for a term and you get results in another language. - Dan]

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