Inside Apple's new vector-based Maps in iOS 6

in iPhone edited January 2014
Apple isn't just declaring its independence from Google Maps with its new in-house backend for Maps in iOS 6. It has developed a superior way to deliver map data that relies on resolution independent vectors rather than Google's multiple zoom levels of bit mapped images.

The previous segment, Apple wants to wipe Google off the map with iOS 6, described Apple's iOS 6 strategy of cutting ties with Google's map servers and instead powering its own iPhone and iPad Maps client apps (as well as all third party apps that use iOS' built-in mapping services) with mapping servers it manages and operates on its own.

Apple's new mapping services powering the revamped Maps app iOS 6 are based on a series of partnerships, acquisitions and internal work that are intended to not just replace the existing maps data Google has been serving up for iOS users over the past half decade, but to also expand and improve upon the features available.

Vectors are the new map

The first primary technology advancement Apple will be introducing for iOS 6 Maps relates to the use of resolution independent vector images. This allows users to smoothly zoom in with a pinch of the fingers, while details and labels pop up as space allows. Google's existing map services are based on a series of fixed zoom levels, so when users zoom in, they see the existing map turn into a blurry image that is incrementally repainted with the next zoom level as it downloads (below, during a refresh).

Each fixed zoom level of Google's map data is made up of bitmapped graphics. That results in labels (such as neighborhood or street names) being fixed in position and orientation, so when the map is rotated (such as by the compass), the labels may appear upside down. Zoomed in or out, labels may also be left illegible by rough-looking scaling or obscured by overlay information such as the direction path drawn on top of the map.

Google does a pretty good job of quickly serving up replacement map tiles as users zoom in and out, but this process can be complicated by slow data networks that don't have the bandwidth to serve up tiles fast enough.

Modern iOS devices do a pretty good job of caching a bit of Google's map data so you can load a map of the area you will be visiting and then navigate around using GPS even if you lack a mobile connection. However, while Google does support offline maps on its own Android platform, there's no way to load a specific set of maps at arbitrary zoom levels in iOS Maps, so you can only load up a relatively small area and hope the system doesn't automatically discard any of the maps you want to view offline.

When using to vector maps, all coastlines, roads, labels and other data are represented as mathematical lines rather than as fixed graphic images. This enables Apple to allow users to freely rotate the map however they want; the text of map labels dynamically reorients itself to remain legible. When users zoom in or out, the text size of labels scales smoothly, because it is being rendered live as dynamic text, not as a graphic image that includes text and must be "repainted" for every zoom level.

On page 2 of 3: I can see for miles and miles

I can see for miles and miles

Even better, highly efficient vector maps allows Apple to load up a large area of maps you can continue to zoom into even after you've entered Airplane Mode. This means that if you load a map of San Francisco then turn off network access, you can still zoom in and out all over a very large surrounding area without getting Google's zoomed in jaggies and blank grid spaces.

Apple's iOS 6 Maps app still complains when there's no data connection, but it will let you continue to zoom in and out of nearby areas you haven't even previously visited, because it can continue to smoothly render the efficiently lean vector map data it has loaded.

After loading San Francisco and going offline, one can browse over 300 miles (480 km) south (nearly to Los Angeles), 335 miles (540 km) north to the Oregon border, and 300 miles east to the middle of Nevada, down to the primary city street level (in sharp detail but with few road labels).

Attempting the same task on an existing iPad, Google's bitmapped maps run out of steam just 35 miles (56 km) away in Palo Alto (below), and on the edge of its cached area, images degrade poorly when zooming, with blurry text and jagged road lines.

Apple's new vector maps can deal far more gracefully with a lost data connection, allowing you to zoom in and see details with clarity, even when you can't load local details such as secondary road names (below, the same area offline).

After loading San Francisco and turning off data, Apple's vector data could coast offline all the way down to LA (380 miles, 611 km) before degrading to the point of not being useful (below top, vs. restored data connection below bottom).

On page 3 of 3: A brief history of Google Maps and iOS

A brief history of Google Maps and iOS

Apple originally partnered with Google to deliver maps on the iPhone, but is now taking over iOS Maps entirely, launching its own mapping servers at the critical point where vector graphics (among other technologies) have the potential to revolutionize mobile maps. Here's a brief overview of how Apple's partnership with Google has unraveled.

Google acquired Where 2 Technologies in 2004 to release its initial web app for online maps, relying heavily on JavaScript and AJAX technologies to enable map zooming and exploration features on the web that nobody had ever seen before.

Over the next two years, Google rapidly enhanced its Google Maps website and began incorporating a variety of unique features including plotting directions between multiple directions, as well as adding building outline models and subway stops for some cities. In 2006, Google launched Maps for Mobile, a mobile Java app intended for use with mobile phones (at a time when mobile devices didn't have very functional web browsers).

The next year, Apple debuted the original iPhone, running a custom Maps client app making intuitive use of touch controls for navigation and zoom. Apple's Maps app, developed in-house using the iPhone's native Cocoa Touch, relied upon Google's open API for obtaining map data, but presented and navigated that data in an entirely new way.

Within the first year, Apple's iOS Maps app added the ability to pinpoint the user's location, using GPS or WiFi/cell tower geolocation. In late 2008 Apple introduced iOS 2.2 with support for Google's StreetView as well as adding walking and transit directions. In 2009's iOS 3, Apple added APIs for developers to incorporate mapping features within their own apps.

With the release of iPad in 2010, Apple added Google's terrain view to the iPad-only iOS 3.2, but never brought that feature to iPhone users. In last year's iOS 5, Apple added alternative route options and Google's real time traffic information.

Over the same five years, Google added a variety of new features to its web and mobile mapping apps, many of which Apple did not support in its native Maps app. In fact, as Google focused its attention on delivering Android as a competitor to the iPhone, it began launching new map features exclusively on Android as differentiating features iOS didn't have.

For example, a primary marketing feature of Android 1.0 was its new compass support, which Google demonstrated as a way to navigate StreetView images by orbiting a phone around oneself awkwardly at arm's length, making for a cool demonstration, if not a very useful feature. Apple's own support for compass features and StreetView followed a few months later in iOS 2.2, but Apple used the digital compass to orient maps or drive the new Compass app, leaving StreetView as something you'd navigate with your finger.

In 2009 Google launched Android 2.0 with a series of exclusive mapping features, including voice prompted, turn-by-turn navigation features; voice search; searching for items along a plotted route and 3D models (below).

Apple appeared set to adopt those features as it had the previous year. In late 2009, a Google spokesperson told AppleInsider "Apple is a close partner. Millions of users experience Google Maps on the iPhone. We will continue to work with Apple to bring innovation, including Latitude and Navigation, to users but you'll have to speak to Apple about availability."

Instead, Apple began plotting its own next move in maps, no doubt concerned that additional dependence upon Google would eventually put it in a very difficult competitive position.

Google continued to tie its map services into other related businesses, including its Yelp-like Local search and Loopt-like Latitude services. It has also added or enhanced direction information tailored to public transit, walking or biking, added 3D building models, offline maps and has announced 3D renderings of some cities. Apple has selectively ignored many of these features in its own iOS Maps app as it worked to put together its own mapping system.

Apple puts together its own map team

Since 2009, Apple has only acquired a dozen different smaller companies. A quarter of these highly selective, strategic moves involved mapping companies. In July 2009 Apple bought Placebase, followed by Poly9 the next July. In August 2011, it bought C3 Technologies, known for work in developing 3D images based on aerial or satellite images.

It's notable that most of Apple's other known acquisitions were rapidly converted into key product features, from Lala (which made its way into iTunes Match) to Quattro Wireless (iAd) to Polar Rose (camera face recognition), IMSense (iPhone HDR) and Siri. This helped support the prediction that Apple was intently interested in replacing Google's maps services.

But Apple didn't just want to clone Google Maps. It made plans to replace it with superior technology. By delivering maps as vector graphics, rather than static bit maps, Apple realized it could enhance the navigation experience and take fuller advantage of the graphics capabilities of its newest mobile devices.

In addition to smoothly accommodating any zoom level without getting jaggies and having to download new tile data, vector map data can also draw text labels very legibly in a way that accommodates the drawing of additional layers of data on top, such as labeled businesses, building outlines, and direction path lines that don't obscure map information.

Users can also spin the map with a two-fingered rotational gesture. As the map rotates, labels can turn to remain legible. A compass icon points north; tapping it reorients the map to face north (below: two rotated views of Market Street, San Francisco. Map labels reorient to remain legible as you rotate the map; below top is rotated so it shows a compass icon, bottom image faces north).

A new battle for Maps territory

Google is also working on its own next generation Google Maps that makes use of vectors, but it has a more difficult job because it is targeting several major platforms: the web, which relies upon the experimental new MapsGL enhancements of WebGL; Android, which has a native JavaME-like platform; and its existing public API, which is rooted in how Google Maps has worked in the past.

Apple can introduce entirely new technologies very rapidly because it only has to optimize for one platform: iOS Cocoa Touch. Apple isn't serving up a public web version of its own maps as Google does, so it isn't constrained by the limits of web-based technologies.

Apple does have a public API for iOS Maps, but third parties don't just request raw map data through it; Apple's iOS takes care of the underlying complexities when a third party app requests to plot a location on a map, so it's not an extremely difficult task for Apple to adjust those APIs to work with its own map data rather than Google's.

When iOS 6 ships later this fall, Apple will essentially take away about half of Google's mobile maps users, and virtually all of its iOS users. When Apple ships its own Cocoa version of Maps for Mac OS X users, Google will likely lose another valuable segment of desktop users as well. This new competition should push Google to deliver mapping tools that iOS and OS X users will want to go out of their way to download and use.

At the same time, Apple is now on the brink of inheriting a huge new business, one that will require it to remain competitive in maps if it expects to retain users' attentions. Last fall, the company did virtually the same thing with Siri voice assistance, jumping from dead last in mobile voice services to being the top vendor with a comfortable lead that Google and Microsoft are now struggling to match with their own simpler, basic voice recognition systems.

Jumping to the next generation of maps with vector-based graphics will give Apple a similar technological lead over today's existing mapping servers. But vectors aren't the only new technology Apple is leveraging to launch its new iOS 6 Maps service, as the next segment will explore.


  • Reply 1 of 184

    I can't wait. Google Maps is the last vestige of the Mountain View Ad Company that still gets used in my iOS universe.


    Begone, Pixelated Spyware!

  • Reply 2 of 184
    sacto joesacto joe Posts: 895member
    Vector versus raster! As an old hand at CAD, I can verify that vector is far superior.
  • Reply 3 of 184
    gatorguygatorguy Posts: 24,354member

    Google's maps on Android are not bit-mapped (raster). The desktop maps version may still be, I'm not sure, but Google swapped over to vector-based maps for Android back in 2010. And just like Apple will reportedly do, Google Maps can be rotated and zoomed with two fingers, and the map or street labels don't get turned upside down.


    The maps Apple receives from TeleAtlas, Canada's DMTI and many others are also vector-based, just as Naveq/Nokia's competing maps are. That's why Apple maps are vector rather than bitmapped, not because it's an Apple development. They get most of their licensed map data as vector rather than raster.

  • Reply 4 of 184
    dagamer34dagamer34 Posts: 494member
    gatorguy wrote: »
    Google's maps on mobile devices are [SIZE=14px]not[/SIZE] bit-mapped (raster). The desktop maps version may still be, I'm not sure, but Google swapped over to vector-based maps for Android back in 2010.

    The maps Apple receives from TeleAtlas are also vector-based, as are the competing maps from Navteq. That's why Apple maps are vector rather than bitmapped, not because it's an Apple development. They get most of their licensed map data as vector rather than raster.

    Google has had vector maps on the web for several months now, just turn on WebGL. And this article makes it sound as if Google just discovered vector maps when Google has had them for almost 3 years.

    And Google is struggling with voice dictation? Really? Please show me offline voice dictation in iOS 6. Oy, this article sounds like a fan piece. I like Apple, Google, and Microsoft, but dislike when someone is playing fast and loose with facts.

    Lastly, one does not simply remove Street View or public transit directions. I don't see that going well when iOS is released to the public.
  • Reply 5 of 184
    daharderdaharder Posts: 1,580member
    When it comes to mapping apps/software, they all 'look' good enough at this point (both are 'Vector-Based' BTW), what really matters is how fast and accurate they are, and Google Maps has long proven very strong in these areas.

    It remains to be seen how well Apple's (largely outsourced) efforts fares.
  • Reply 6 of 184

    I love iOS 6 Maps but there is just isn't nearly as many way points in Yelp versus Google. Most smart business owners will have their business listed on as much as possible (Google, Yahoo, Bing, Yelp) but many places they've only done Google. There have been a few times I had to grab my business partner's iPhone to look up something on Google Maps cause it wouldn't show up in iOS Maps.


    Not really Apple's fault, they've done as much as they could. Hopefully people realize it's crucial to get their waypoints on Yelp from here on out.

  • Reply 7 of 184

    How can the writers on this blog continue to "LIE" day after day?  90% of the article written or copy and pasted from another site and then edited with an Apple Bias are full of lies and missing data that would completely change the story.


    Google maps have vector


    Google the 100K other article written on the subject.



  • Reply 8 of 184
    zorinlynxzorinlynx Posts: 170member

    >Apple isn't serving up a public web version of its own maps as Google does, so it isn't constrained by the limits of web-based technologies.


    This is actually something that annoys me. Right now, I can use Google Maps on my phone, iPad or computer and always get the same data, directions, street view, etc.


    With iOS 6 I'm going to have a different mapping system on my iPad/phone than on my desktop. This is going to lead to different directions and data. This is ALREADY annoying because of the differences between TomTom on my iPhone and Google Maps; now we're going to have a third source of different information.


    It'd be nice if Apple would release a web version of their maps, or even an app for the Mac to access them. An app would likely be easier to implement due to the use of vector data.

  • Reply 9 of 184
    gwmacgwmac Posts: 1,807member

    I look forward to finally having a free voice turn navigation again like I had on my HTC Evo phone running Android. But I will not be surprised if Apple maps takes a few years to iron out all the bugs. Love or hate Google, they have a damn fine product with their maps service. It is going to be very hard for Apple to match that level of quality right off the bat. As others have also pointed out, Yelp is no Google in terms of waypoints. Goggle probably has 10 times as many as Yelp and in smaller cities Yelp is practically useless. Apple really doesn't have to be better than Google maps or really even as good, they just need to be good enough at first and improve it over time. As long as it can get people to point A to B consistently and easily then it will be a success. But I hate articles that really distort the facts like this one. No reason to lie about Google maps to promote Apple maps. Let it stand on it's merits alone. 

  • Reply 10 of 184
    davendaven Posts: 705member

    Kudos on a well researched and written article!

  • Reply 11 of 184
    gatorguygatorguy Posts: 24,354member


    Originally Posted by DaveN View Post

    Kudos on a well researched and written article!

    Did you forget to include the /s tag?

  • Reply 12 of 184
    bill42bill42 Posts: 131member

    I usually love AppleInsider articles but this one smells bad, especially after reading the comments from Android users explaining that their maps have been vector for a few years now.

    I hope AppleInsider corrects their errors.

  • Reply 13 of 184
    gwmacgwmac Posts: 1,807member


    Originally Posted by bill42 View Post

    I usually love AppleInsider articles but this one smells bad, especially after reading the comments from Android users explaining that their maps have been vector for a few years now.

    I hope AppleInsider corrects their errors.

    Agreed. I am a former Android user and now iPhone 4S user and the vector news was pretty well known. It is hard to believe they could make such a huge and well-known mistake by accident. Google maps on Android is a very good product and sets the bar very high for Apple which is a good thing. I hope they can get a map app on iOS that can compete well, but no reason to lie about it to make it look more advanced or unique when that has been around for several years on the Google version. Just makes AI look bad and not Google maps. 

  • Reply 14 of 184
    crowleycrowley Posts: 10,453member

    I don't mind a little bit of Apple spin ladled on, but this one has a bucket poured over it.


    DED is such a tool.

  • Reply 15 of 184
    charlitunacharlituna Posts: 7,217member
    zorinlynx wrote: »

    It'd be nice if Apple would release a web version of their maps, or even an app for the Mac to access them. An app would likely be easier to implement due to the use of vector data.

    Don't hold your breath. This maps service is a selling point for ios 6 and thus Apple devices. Making a web version so you can use it on your Kindle Fire or whatever messes with that game
  • Reply 16 of 184

    I did my research and I agree that Google did indeed have vector based maps on Android devices back in Dec 2010, so the writer is biased. I think the writer should have focused more on the free seamless transition to Apple's maps and the HUGE loss to revenue to Google. For example, for you to experience the vector based maps on Android you need to have the right hardware/software combo, this is less of an issue when it comes to Apple. Also most mobile based traffic (web included) comes from Apple devices

  • Reply 17 of 184
    lerxtlerxt Posts: 186member
    Vector this, vector that. If it hasn't got streetview I'm not interested.
  • Reply 18 of 184

    There's no doubt that 3D, Vector-based maps are the future.


    However - cool new 3D and navigation features aside - in terms of basic 2D maps, Apple's current implementation in iOS 6 is pretty poor compared to the Google Maps it is replacing.


    Compared to Google Maps: 

    • Apple's maps are often out of date (more than 10 years out of date in the case of London, UK!)

    • colours are garish (parks & water features too bright and over-emphasised)

    • many non-road features are missing (random unknown businesses names appear while significant tourist attractions and points of interest are missing)

    • building outlines are only shown in a few select cities

    • many transit features are missing. No bus stops shown, and train stations often missing or in the wrong place.

    • satellite images are poor quality (not just lacking detail but also dark washed out colours, lacking in contrast)

    • hybrid mode is sluggish on slower devices (iPad 2)


    All in all, Apple maps shows promise, and could eventually be great, but is disappointing in the current iteration. In my opinion they are releasing it too early.

  • Reply 19 of 184


    Originally Posted by Gatorguy View Post

    Google's maps on Android are not bit-mapped (raster). The desktop maps version may still be, I'm not sure, but Google swapped over to vector-based maps for Android back in 2010. 


    Vector mode in Google Maps is available on desktop browsers, too. If you use Chrome on a Mac, you get 3D vector maps by clicking on the "MapsGL" option at Vector mode is, apparently, not enabled for Safari.

  • Reply 20 of 184
    gwmacgwmac Posts: 1,807member

    Yeah, DED really hates Google with a passion. I really don't know the reason for all his animosity. He used to hate and write articles attacking Microsoft but seems to have transferred all that hostility towards Google in the last few years. It's a shame he can't keep his anger in check and write more balanced and honest articles. You can read attack ads from the Romney or Obama campaigns with more truth and integrity than most of his work. It's a shame because he is a decent writer, he just needs to stop letting his hate for Google cloud his judgement.

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