Apple Maps in iOS 8: Explained

There were a lot of hopes and rumors leading up to WWDC 2014 about improvements and enhancements to Apple's Maps in iOS 8. So now that the keynote has come and gone and the dust has settled, how are Maps doing and, more importantly, where are they taking us?

Previously on Maps...

The original iOS maps app was powered by Google's data. A couple of years ago that relationship became untenable and so Apple began sourcing alternative data and rebuilt a new Maps app for iOS 6. It lost features like public transit directions and Street View but gained features like turn-by-turn navigation and Flyover. There were also problems with the initial data cleansing and aggregation. In short, there were both changing pains and growing pains. That's because Maps are hard. Really, really hard. Few companies do their own maps, those that do have been at it for over a decade, and each and every one still falls on its face far too often.

Last year Maps were redesigned for iOS 7 and, along with the developer-side Map Kit, were brought to OS X as well. Other improvements, like Popular Apps Nearby were also added.

Earlier this year, with iOS 7.1, Apple enhanced Maps to work with CarPlay. That included projecting both the maps themselves and turn-by-turn navigation directions from the iPhone to the in-car display. It also included harnessing Apple's traffic system and data-detector driven predictive location system — the same one found in Notification Center's Today screen — to make it even easier and safer to get where you needed to go.

A lot of improvements have also made on the back end. Since Maps is a service, it's easy to forget that Apple, like any provider, can continuously improve things like satellite imagery, landmark quantity and quality, and listings for businesses, restaurants, movie theaters, and more. It's sort of like a child you see every day as opposed to only once a year — you only realize how much they've grown when you haven't looked for a while.

Transit directions haven't (yet) been added back, but Apple has acquired companies proficient in those areas. That should help Apple source data fragmented by geography and format, and all too often governed by petty local fiefdoms adverse to sharing with outside services.

Grumbling aside, it seems almost certain we'll get it eventually. In the meantime, iOS 8 has added several new features to Maps, but also pushed Maps out to several new features.

Spotlight on Maps

Spotlight can now return points of interest (POI), restaurants, movies, and other location information. right in the search results. Simply start typing the name of a landmark, local diner, or film you want to see and Spotlight will not only find them for you give you instant access to directions and turn-by-turn navigation.

Like Siri in the past, this essentially makes maps available everywhere but through typing rather than voice.

Maps in Messages

Messages, the app that contains both iMessage and standard SMS/MMS, now also contains maps. The new Details view provides quick access to a wealth of additional, contextual information including the locations of people you're messaging with, if they choose to share it and only for so long as they choose to share it. (Options include one hour, until end of day, and indefinitely.)

Locations are presented with avatars on the map, making it easy to find multiple participants. If you're trying to meet friends, family, or colleagues you've been messaging with at a bar, you no longer have to switch to Find my Friends or pass around location information manually. It's all right there, right where you are.

Flyover city tours

At first glance Flyover might seem like street view for Superman, yet it remains a great way for everyone to get a better sense of cities near and far, and a fantastic way to virtually tour places you can't see in person. Apple has improved Flyover support substantially over the last couple of years, bringing it to over 80 cities world wide now and counting.

With iOS 8, they adding Flyover city tours. The feature only got one string of text on one slide during the jam-packed keynote, but the ability to soar through major attractions should be compelling to anyone planning a vacation or simply wanting a few minutes of virtual escape.

Smarter place cards

Place cards in Maps already provide a wealth of information, including street address, telephone number, and website, directions, hours of operation, and the aforementioned popular apps nearby. iOS 8 enhances that with additional data like category and price as well as inline photos and reviews from Yelp, and a link to take you to the Yelp apps check in feature.

Apple's famous "slide of other stuff we don't have time to talk about" also featured a line saying "Place cards in other apps", so rich location information could soon be available everywhere it's needed.

Maps in China

Vector-based map tiles, which a provide better quality, better zooming experience are coming to China with iOS 8, as is turn-by-turn navigation. China remains a significant growth market for Apple, so paying attention to those features is not only good business but smart business.

Bottom line

Maps in iOS 8 didn't get the stage time it got in iOS 6 when the all-new app was unveiled for the first time, nor even the stage time it got in iOS 7 when its new, updated look and feel was shown off. Instead it got a few quick lines on a few quick slides in a WWDC so stacked even marquee features like Siri and Camera barely got more than a mention. Yes, we all want transit back, and we all want better data faster. We'll get the former eventually, and the latter will be an ongoing mission. (Google Maps recently became absolutely useless to me when it removed exit numbers and decided to get street names wrong — mapping is hard!)

Right now Maps is doing what the rest of iOS 8 is doing — improving steadily but more importantly extending beyond the constraints of its own app. And that makes for a huge leap forward in convenience and usability.

More of iOS 8: Explained