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Ihnatko: Google Maps is back on iPhone, thank goodness

FAIRFAX CA - DECEMBER 13:  An icfor Google Maps app is seen an Apple iPhone 4S December 13 2012

FAIRFAX, CA - DECEMBER 13: An icon for the Google Maps app is seen on an Apple iPhone 4S on December 13, 2012 in Fairfax, California. Three months after Apple removed the popular Google Maps from its operating system to replace it with its own mapping software, a Google Maps app has been added to the iTunes store. Apple Maps were widely panned in tech reviews and among customers, the fallout resulting in the dismissal of the top executive in charge of Apple's mobile operating system. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

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Updated: January 15, 2013 11:31AM

If you believe that the world will end in a couple of weeks, you might be cursed with a peculiar kind of intelligence that also led you to believe that Google Maps wasn’t coming back to the iPhone.

The jury’s still out on the whole Mayan Calendar Rollover bug, but you can now rest assured that good old Google Maps, the service that powered the iPhone’s Maps app from the debut of the device through this summer, is now back on your favorite phone.

I can only imagine what a load I’ve just lifted off your mind. I mean, what if the world ends, and instead of being led to the safety of the Cavern of Tears near the Lake of Fire, where the righteous will gather to await salvation, iOS 6 Maps misdirected you to the Old Country Buffet in Pittsfield, Massachusetts? Their mac and cheese may be to die for, but for an entree good enough to risk dying in a state of perpetual woe, you’d probably prefer to visit Sarita’s Macaroni & Cheese in the East Village.

Well, the new Google Maps app is free for the taking from the App Store as of early this morning.

It’s a solid example of how far Google has come in user interface design. It’s quite pretty, with a clean, minimalist interface. That’s the neutral way of putting it. You could put a highly positive spin on it by saying that the iPhone has the smallest screen in the popular smartphone market, and Google has reconceived a complicated app to work effectively in less space. It’s free of visual clutter and during an hourlong drive this morning, I had no trouble operating the interface at stop lights.

It sure doesn’t look like an iOS app, however. I can’t spot a single user interface element that comes straight out of the Apple API cookbook. Google Maps, for good or bad, reflects a homogenizing trend in mobile app design. In the olden days (2010) a mobile app would first be written for the iPhone and later reproduced in Android style if it proved successful. Today, an app that’s been planned with a Greater Destiny in mind is built from the ground up to look the same on both major platforms. See: Kindle, Flipboard, Evernote.

To their credit, Google’s done some clever things with the interface. A classic iOS interface generally sticks to a “drill down/step back” sequence of screens. Google Maps incorporates Google’s “cards” concept, which they’ve been using consistently since Android 4.1.

For example, I search for a nearby Chipotle and the app prints the result at the bottom of the screen. Thanks, Google Maps...but now how do I actually do something with this information? I hunt for a button or a gear, or anything, really, but it turns out that these visual dinguses aren’t unnecessary. The name and the address is actually the top section of a card; I can reveal additional tools and information just by giving it an upward swipe.

Nice. It’s a bit confusing at first, though. I spend enough time in Android these days that I instinctively tapped the blank bit of glass at the bottom right corner of my iPhone for a nonexistent system-wide “Back” button, but I got over it quickly. One of my bugaboos with navigation apps is the dominance of tiny, hard to read controls that are unsafe to operate even when you’re stopped at a light. Google Maps effectively turns anything of interest into a huge button.

It’s so very comforting to be back inside Google Maps comprehensive and carefully curated point of interest database, after a few months with Apple Maps. Apple’s been improving its POI content and today, you’re less likely to be directed to the private home of someone named “Homedeppo” when you ask for directions to the nearest garden center. But wow, the superiority of Google Maps is tough to miss. It delivers better results in my vicinity and also excels at presentation. Give it the flimsiest of search terms and you’ll wind up exactly where you need to be seventeen to twenty-two minutes later, allowing for traffic.

Another great relief? Having access to Google’s excellent public transit data once again. This feature alone wins Google Maps an emphatic recommendation. Lord, how I missed you, bus and subway data! I hardly knew, until 6 this morning. I asked Google Maps how to get from my house to Logan Airport, and it promptly gave me walking directions to a bus that was leaving in exactly 26 minutes, and a clear list of transfers to a commuter train and then a shuttle bus.

Google Maps’ turn-by-turn navigation is excellent, offering multiple route options and live (-ish) traffic. The composition of the maps display isn’t quite as pretty as that of Apple Maps, but the voice is sweet and soothing, and the directions are spot-on.

Apple’s map cameraperson is a bit more agile than Google’s, however. Sometimes you need to glance at your nav’s map to clarify a spoken direction. I see two exits ahead of me and the sun’s in my eyes; am I supposed to take the next exit, or the second one? With Google Maps, I sometimes found that the highlighted exit was still about two inches above the top of my iPhone’s screen. I sure didn’t want to spare another half a second to look at my docked phone while the car was moving, so I just had to trust to luck.

The “freestyle” part of this head-to-head competition centers around Apple’s spectacular 3D Maps feature. Some dismiss it as useless demo-candy but I use it frequently. When you’re trying to find an unfamiliar office building in an unfamiliar neighborhood, I find it’s helpful to board a helicopter and fly around, looking at streets and buildings from every angle. Achieving the same result via Apple Maps is both less expensive and pumps lower amounts of deadly greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Independent labs confirm this finding.

Google Maps, alas, doesn’t include this feature. The app can only send you off to the Google Earth app (a separate download). Google Earth has its own 3D photo-skinned city models. But it isn’t as fast as Apple Maps’ 3D feature...and after just a few minutes of exploring the walking route from Boston Common to Fenway Park, my iPhone 4S was popping off “low memory” warnings.

Google Maps doesn’t have a built-in helicopter, but it has something that’s at least as handy: street view. And full street-level navigation works right inside the app. You can “walk” all through the neighborhood and if you spin from West to East in your office chair, the Street View imagery in Google Maps will shift accordingly.

I said earlier that the positive way to describe the app’s iOS interface was “effectively reconceived for a small screen.” The negative way to put it is “Google held back a bunch of features.” Google Maps is a clear step above the Maps app that shipped with last year’s edition of iOS. But if Google had flat-out brought the full Android version to iOS, then the Google Maps would have delivered a huge leap.

Which isn’t to say that Maps feels like a cut-down app. But some of the Android app’s features are damned handy. Like Apple Maps, Google Maps for iOS pre-caches all of the map data is needs to get you to a specified destination. Even if there’s no mobile broadband, you can still find your way around. Swell, but the Android edition allows you to manually download huge map grids. That’s a big load off my mind when I’m traveling...particularly if I’m headed into a different country with sketchy or expensive local mobile broadband.

If there’s only room for one Maps app on the top page of your iPhone’s app launcher, then that app ought to be Google’s. For now. Back when iOS 6 Maps debuted, I put its problems in perspective by saying that this was the start of a monumental undertaking. Apple Maps has made great progress since then. Unless you’re driving through deserts on a continent that hosts the planet’s top ten deadliest venomous creatures, it’s reliable and trustworthy.

But it’s not as reliable as Google Maps, and it doesn’t have as many features. Google’s ecosystem is particularly valuable here. As soon as I signed into my Google account, Google Maps instantly became familiar with all of the destinations I’d saved while using the desktop browser version of Google Maps. That’s a terrific time saver; it’s a real “That thing which just happened is something I would like to continue to happen” sort of feature.

Even if the two apps were in a dead heat for my recommendation, I’d still have to give the nod to Google Maps on a single tiebreaking technicality.

Apple. I love you. But the lovely horticultural attraction just to the west of Boston Common is the Public Garden. Not the “Public Gardens.” Must we keep having this discussion?

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