When Apple launched its 2012 version of Maps, the product was so bad that Apple chief executive officer Tim Cook actually apologized, and encouraged consumers to use other companies' products.

Big winners as a result: apps like Google Maps and Waze (which is also owned by Google).

Fast-forward a little over seven years, however, and Apple says it's revamped Apple Maps and played catch-up. In a statement Thursday, Apple announced that it has rolled out its new-and-improved version of Maps to every customer in the United States. 

Here's what Apple says is different this time:


Let's start here with privacy, which appears to be an important part of Apple's plan to take on Google.

"We set out to create the best and most private maps app on the planet ... with privacy at its core," said Eddy Cue, Apple's senior vice president of Internet Software and Services.

Among the key features Apple is touting:

  • No sign-in required, and Apple Maps "is not connected to an Apple ID."
  • "Personalized features, such as suggesting departure time to make the next appointment, are created using on-device intelligence."
  • Data sent to Apple to improve the app is "associated with random identifiers that continually reset," so that individual users can't be identified.
  • Possibly the most interesting feature: When you search for location information, Apple uses a process called "fuzzing" that "converts the precise location where the search originated to a less-exact one after 24 hours, and does not retain a history of what has been searched or where a user has been."

It's smart for Apple to promote privacy features; this is something people care about more now than they did in 2012. Perhaps related: there's no mention at all of advertising in Apple Maps.

"Look Around" 

You're familiar with Google Street View? Apple Maps now has "Look Around," and it functions a lot like Street View: "high-resolution, 3D photography" that provides "street-level imagery."

Even if this doesn't seem new, it was conspicuous by its absence before. It was also expensive and a big effort. Apple said it sent cars and airplanes covering millions of miles in the United States to create the images.

So far, "Look Around" is covers a limited number of cities in the U.S., and will expand to Europe "later this year."

Transit info and indoor maps

Apple isn't the only maps app to offer real-time transit information, but as someone who commuted in several major cities over the years, I suspect it will be very welcome.

The Apple version includes, "detailed transit schedules, live departure times, arrival times, the current location of a bus or train en route, and system connections," according to the announcement.

It's currently available in the San Francisco Bay Area, Washington D.C., New York, Los Angeles, among other cities, with Miami added just this week--in time for Super Bowl XIV.

Also new: indoor maps of airports and shopping malls.

"By simply opening the Maps app, users can see what level they're on, restroom locations and even which stores and restaurants are open," the announcement says.

Sheer numbers

There are some other features as well, but these seem like the main ones.

And, while I've been using the new Apple Maps recently, I don't mean to position this as an app review. In other words, I'm here neither to praise Apple Maps nor to bury it--just to draw lessons from it.

Perhaps the most important is how one giant tech company tries to figure out the best consumer value proposition, so that it can go head-to-head with another giant tech company. 

That reminds me of Cook's 2012 statement (still available on the Internet Archive) when he pointed out the scale of his user base: 

"There are already more than 100 million iOS devices using the new Apple Maps ... [who] have already searched for nearly half a billion locations. The more our customers use our Maps the better it will get ..."

Any app gains at least part of its potency from a critical mass of users.

When it comes to maps, Google hasn't only had a seven-years-plus head start over Apple; it has a cadre of very devoted users, especially on Waze, which has 30,000 devoted volunteers working to keep it updated, for free.

Millions of users will decide for themselves, of course. And we'll see whether after more than seven years, Apple's road map ultimately leads to victory over Google.