Atlantic Cities

Why Losing Google Maps on the iPhone Is a Good Thing

Why Losing Google Maps on the iPhone Is a Good Thing
Embark

George Aye describes it as something like the "phantom limb phenomenon": that eerie sensation when, instinctively, he continues to reach for Google Maps to navigate Chicago's public transit, even though the app was scrubbed from his iPhone last week, when he upgraded to iOS 6.

"It’s a very numbing experience, for those who maybe have lost Google Transit,” says Aye, a former designer at the Chicago Transportation Authority. "They realize, 'Wow, I was so reliant on it. Now it’s not there.' Something is definitely missing."

Apple’s decision to prune Google Maps from the iPhone to make way for the homegrown alternative, Apple Maps—which lacks data on buses or trains, among other flaws—has sparked the particular anger of public transportation advocates. But while inconvenienced, transit tech enthusiasts like Aye (currently at work on a new, Chicago-specific transit app) also recognize the potential silver lining in the wake of Google Maps' departure from the iPhone: an opening for smaller, place-based transit apps to catch on, innovate, and court users on the more than 100 million devices that have already switched over to iOS 6 since it was released a little over a week ago.

"I look at this whole change to the transit feature in iOS 6 as a very big opportunity for developers. And it’s going to create very good apps," says David Hodge, co-founder and CEO of transit-app startup Embark. "We see it as a big opportunity to attack the footprint that Google Transit had."

In the week following iOS 6's release, Embark’s 12 system-specific apps were downloaded for free more than 100,000 times and helped plan 1.3 million trips, a huge bump in traffic for the 1.5 year-old company, Hodge says.

The growth of Embark and other apps is fueled further by Apple's decision to route users in search of public transit directions through third-party apps. Apple has gone so far as to admit the inferiority of its product, which also mislabels some landmarks (case in point: redesignating Helsinki’s train station as a park).

The result is that attempts to navigate, for example, New York City's subway using Apple Maps will redirect users to a list of transit apps for download from the App Store, including Embark’s NYC Subway edition.

Hodge says that many people who download Embark based on Apple's tip soon begin to access it directly, as opposed to through Apple Maps. And for some users, this means discovering how apps tailored to the specificities of a particular city can often do more than Google Maps did to begin with. "We figure out how fast people walk in an individual city, and what are the transfer times between stations," says Hodge. "That is something that Google has always had trouble with. If you look at their directions in San Francisco or New York or other big cities, it’s a tough problem for them to do at scale."

Google Transit also usually relies on fixed schedules for departure times, which any bus rider knows are rarely accurate, as opposed to real-time information (although this is changing as real-time transit data becomes more widely available). Transit apps are getting more creative all the time: apps like Greenway, being tested in Germany, advises users on the route that will save them gas and time. Aye and his business partner and wife Sara have researched possibilities like incorporating wheelchair or stroller accessibility into transit directions, or pushing data from personal calendars into a trip planner that could route a whole day's worth of errands.

Of course, the problem becomes one of where you get the data. "Who has data like Google?" Sara Aye asks. An app built around Apple Maps’ cartography, no matter how interesting, will inherit its less textured reflection of our cities until it gets better.

Last week, anonymous Google employees told The New York Times that a Google Maps app for iOS 6 is in the works and will be out by the end of the year. But it’s unclear whether Apple would approve the app for download, and whether the app would be able to win back users who have already moved on to city-specific apps.

"Google faces a fundamental challenge and that is: it is hard to build a great transit solution for everybody, everywhere, all at once,” says Hodge. "When Google Maps existed on the iPhone, our users still love us. It’s just—not as many of them found us."

Zak Stone is a writer and editor in Los Angeles and a co-founder of Tomorrow Magazine. All posts »

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