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Google Maps for iOS: Watch the Media Fawn!

After a couple of months of emotional complaints about the supposed poor quality of Apple’s Maps for iOS 6, Google has jumped into the fray with their own version, Google Maps for iOS. Now we can separate the men from the boys, or women from the girls (whichever you prefer). To paraphrase an early review of Google’s new app, this is supposed to be the way it should be done.

Only it wasn’t done that way by Google, who refused to provide voice-driven turn-by-turn navigation and vector-based maps for the iOS. The latter capability sharply reduces bandwidth consumption. So Apple decided to roll their own mapping service; also, no doubt, to reduce their dependency upon Google for anything.

So consider Google Maps an admission that such features should have been there all along, and not in response to any decisions by Apple.

Over the next few weeks, you’ll see hands-on comparisons, showing where one fails and the other succeeds, but since the conventional wisdom has it that Apple’s Maps is fatally flawed, you can guess who wins, regardless of the facts.

Now I think Apple would have taken less abuse had they admitted from the get-go that Maps was really a glorified public beta, not yet complete, but ready for you and I to test it and report the remaining problems. After all, Siri is still beta. Clearly Google doesn’t expect you to accept the first version of their iOS mapping app as a finished product either, since, upon first use of the turn-by-turn feature, you have to accept a disclaimer that informs you that it’s a beta. Clearly Google doesn’t want to take any chances.

In the real world, Google Maps for iOS has a clean, serviceable interface. But the displays are flat, particularly when you’re using the navigation feature, and the look is not dissimilar to the navigation interface of a car. In contrast, street names in Apple Maps appear to be embedded on thick physical plates or labels, and thus are easier to read while the car is in motion.

One key Google advantage is support for public transit. For Apple Maps, you have to use a third-party app, which may be inconvenient, but the system still works. True, app developers are no doubt happy to get the business, assuming the apps aren’t free, but it’s a sure thing that Apple will add public transit and walking features to a future version of Maps. I wouldn’t say those improvements will be there in iOS 7, but it’s clear Apple has placed high priority on fixing the critical problems.

Google made no attempt to tap into the Siri interface, assuming it would even be available. Instead, they offer their own computerized female voice, one that’s efficient and conversational but not distinctive. Unfortunately, the setup also plays havoc with the hands-free system on my Honda. Every time Google Maps has to announce an upcoming turn or the nearness to my destination, it would take over the car’s audio system, preceded and ended with a telltale beep. Worse, the information is presented in short phrases, meaning a single direction to, say, make a left turn on such and such a street in 500 feet, would involve two separate attempts to hijack the car’s audio, both surrounded by those beeps. It got to be annoying after a while.

In all fairness to Google, my first attempt to find a destination worked well enough I suppose. I took a short trip to a nearby health food store. Now when I first tried that destination with the online version of Google Maps a few weeks ago, it left me two miles short, but still on the correct street. This time, after I made the final turn in a strip mall to the store, I was told to turn right, whereas the place was actually located to my left. Had I listened to the app without thinking, I’d have ended up in a bank’s parking area.

This doesn’t mean Apple Maps fared much better. It still has that annoying tendency to identify left-turns into a mall, or the street adjacent to a mall, as a U-turn. Both apps will tell you when you’ve arrived at your destination, but usually fail to tell you in which direction, so you end up searching for the telltale signs of a retail establishment, or the address of someone’s home or apartment.

To some, the arrival of Google Maps for iOS couldn’t come soon enough, particularly if you live in Australia. Evidently, the police in Victoria were warning citizens not to use Apple Maps after some people were misdirected to a remote national park miles away from their actual destination. Samsung tried to exploit that situation with a series of showcase displays, but Apple had already fixed the problem, which was reportedly based on data sourced from the Australian government. So whom do you blame for that?

Regardless of the source of the error, Samsung jumped the gun. Australian police in the town of Colac are reportedly concerned over the efforts of Google Maps to direct drivers to a one-way road not intended for heavy traffic.

In the end, I’d consider both Apple and Google Maps to be glorified public betas, to be used with extreme caution. Unfortunately, the media’s meme favors Google Maps, and few will let you know about its beta status on the iOS platform.