Apple Maps: Why So Many iPhone Users Pick This App

Maps app in iOS 9


It seems that Apple Maps can’t be the punchline of every discussion about navigation apps any longer. Anick Jesdanun reports for The Associated Press that Apple Maps, which was “once a laughingstock,” is now used “more than three times as often” as Google Maps on the iPhone and iPad. That data may come as a surprise to iPhone users who remember the early days of Apple Maps, when the service was unreliable and in many cases unusable.

When Apple Maps debuted in 2012, the app overlooked towns and businesses, misplaced famous landmarks, and routinely gave users hilariously and shockingly bad directions. The initial release was so terrible, and so out of character for a tech company famed for its simple and easy-to-use products, that Apple executive Scott Forstall resigned after refusing to issue a public apology. (Chief executive Tim Cook then issued the apology.)

But Apple didn’t scrap the app after its disastrous launch. It fixed errors as users submitted them, acquired several mapping companies to bring their engineers on board, and this fall, finally added transit directions for a number of major cities, closing much of the distance between its app and Google’s.

Jesdanun reports that Apple’s significant investments into fixing Maps “underscores how important maps and related services are to tech companies.” Not only is location “key to helping phone users find restaurants and shops, discover things to do and just get around,” but apps that help users figure out where they are and where they’re going are “also big business, as app makers tap into the core mapping functions of phones to direct people in helpful ways and sometimes offer them bargains based on where they’re standing.”

AP reports that Apple Maps is now used more widely than Google Maps on iPhones. But that probably has less to do with the quality of the app and more to do with how easy it is to just use Apple Maps instead of finding and installing an alternative. Jesdanun notes, “Google Maps and various third-party apps offer many features that Apple Maps lacks, yet Apple cleverly turned user inertia to its advantage. Many people use Apple Maps just because it comes with the phone.”

Not only that, but Apple Maps is deeply integrated with iOS, Apple’s operating system for the iPhone and iPad. Jesdanun reports that “Even if you’ve taken the trouble to download a competing app, other iPhone services such as Siri and Mail will invariably take you to Apple Maps.” Without Apple’s ability to steer users into its Maps app, the software likely wouldn’t be nearly as popular as it is.

Apple reports that its Maps app is used more than three times as often as Google Maps, with more than 5 billion requests per week. Research firm comScore states that Apple has a modest lead over Google’s app on iPhones in the United States, though comScore arrives at its data by measuring how many people use a service in a given month, rather than measuring how often they use it.

Google still dominates across U.S. smartphones — in part because Apple Maps isn’t available on Google’s Android operating system — and benefits by being the default navigation app on Android. In October, Google Maps had more than twice the number of smartphone users that Apple Maps had. For years, Google provided the default navigation software for the iPhone. But that changed as more people came to rely on turn-by-turn voice navigation with automatic rerouting, a feature that Google only offered in the Android version of its app. So Apple built its own navigation app and removed Google Maps from the iPhone’s home screen.

By making Maps a core iOS feature, Apple has made it easier for third-party developers to incorporate navigation features into their apps. It’s also enabled Apple to integrate navigation into other iOS apps. A query made to Siri can lead straight to Apple Maps, as will tapping an address in the Mail or Messages apps, or even in the Safari web browser. With such integrations, Apple makes it easier for users to just use Apple Maps, even if apps from competitors are more fully featured or offer a better user experience.

Google has maps of indoor venues like shopping malls, plus better search tools for landmarks and business listings. Google’s app also offers public transit directions in more regions than Apple Maps, plus biking directions and the option to exclude highways and toll roads from driving directions. Waze enables drivers to share traffic information and avoid traffic jams. Moovit is better than Google and Apple at working with temporary service changes in mass transit systems, while Citymapper offers specific advice on whether you should board the front, back, or middle of a train.

But as Jesdanun notes, “ultimately, Apple Maps doesn’t need to be the best. It just needs to be good enough that its users won’t look for something else.” For many iPhone users, some of whom don’t take much time to customize their phones, Apple Maps is just good enough that they don’t think twice about finding and installing an alternative.

More from Gear & Style Cheat Sheet: