Cartography Comparison: Google & Apple
What are the biggest differences between Google Maps & Apple Maps?
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One billion is astounding—it’s one out of every seven people on Earth:
It’s also far larger than the United States:
One billion is so large that even 1% of one billion is huge. It’s larger than America’s largest city:
Put another way, just 1% of Google Maps’s user base is larger than all of this:
For all of the hype and press surrounding them, notice what’s not in the Top 10: Uber, Lyft, Airbnb, Snapchat, WhatsApp, Pinterest, Spotify, Pandora, Netflix, Yelp, Foursquare, Twitter, Periscope, and Amazon—among others.
Isn’t it interesting that none of these apps made the Top 10 while Apple Maps did?
Then again, Google Maps and Apple Maps aren’t just apps—they’re platforms. And as platforms, they’re actually inside many of these other apps. You can’t use Uber, for instance, without also using Google Maps, and the same goes for many other apps:
So both Google Maps and Apple Maps have really large user bases, and they’re not only two of the world’s most used apps—they’re also inside of many other widely-used apps. Yet given how important they’ve become, we know relatively little about them.
It’s interesting: I can easily find hundreds of articles that’ll tell me the differences between an Apple iPad and a Microsoft Surface, or even the differences between iOS and Android. But I can’t find anything comparing Google Maps and Apple Maps.
And that’s a shame, because there are so many questions. For instance:
How often do the two maps label the same things?
Does one map emphasize things that the other doesn’t?
And is one map better than the other at something in particular?
We know the exact color gamut of the iPad—but surprising little about the maps that increasingly shape our view of the world...
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Google Maps and Apple Maps.
The columns below look very similar—but would you believe that the maps are actually very different?
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To even what’s labeled on the maps themselves:
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As you can see, the maps are more different than they appear at first glance. And each map shows a surprisingly different view of the world...
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At its heart, this essay is a comparison of the current state of Google’s and Apple’s cartography. But it’s also something more: an exploration into all of the tradeoffs that go into designing and making maps like these.
These tradeoffs are the joy of modern cartography—the thousands of tiny, seemingly isolated decisions that coalesce into a larger, greater whole.
Our purpose here is not to crown a winner, but to observe the paths taken—and not taken.
We’ll look at 54 pairs of maps of three different cities: New York, San Francisco, and London. Each pair shows an identical area, pixel for pixel, on Google Maps and Apple Maps — at the exact same zoom:
To give you a better idea of what these map pairs look like, here’s a few higher-resolution versions:
The three pairs above are all from our New York set:
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Speaking of New York, we’ll center all of the New York map pairs on the Empire State Building:
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For San Francisco, we’ll center the map pairs on Patricia’s Green, a park in the center of the Hayes Valley neighborhood:
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And for London, we’ll center the map pairs on Nelson’s Column in Trafalgar Square:
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Why are we looking at New York, San Francisco, and London—and not some other cities or areas?
First, we want to look at areas where the maps are most likely to be finished (i.e., areas where the maps are most likely to be complete and up-to-date.) San Francisco is Google’s and Apple’s backyard, so the maps should be really good there. And New York and London are two of the world’s largest, most important cities—so they should’ve also gotten a lot of attention.
We also want to look at very dense cities, cities where there’d be an enormous number of candidates for things to label. New York and San Francisco are the U.S.’s two densest major cities. And London is the E.U.’s largest city.
Because of this density requirement, rural areas won’t work for our purposes. In a typical rural area, the things that are labeled are the area’s only things—and Google and Apple are likely to label the same things. For this study, we want to see what Google and Apple label when they have thousands of things to choose from.
And finally, we’ll choose the Empire State Building, Patricia’s Green, and Nelson’s Column because they are all close to the centers of their respective cities, and they’re all likely to have a variety of different things around them.
And also keep in mind that...
We’re only looking at the maps themselves. (Search results, Turn-by-Turn navigation, Street View, Aerial / Satellite imagery, and Traffic displays are all out-of-scope.)
We want to see what a map designed for a billion people looks like, so we’re only looking at the default maps. (We’ll look at map personalization in a later essay. Google offers it; Apple doesn’t.) The map screenshots reflect the default, out-of-the-box experience that someone would have upon using them for the very first time. (The screenshots were taken on fresh installs, with clear browser caches—and no accounts were signed into, nor were any searches performed.)
2 While Google has disclosed the global number of Google Maps users, Apple hasn’t done the same for Apple Maps. So a direct, global user-base comparison isn’t possible at this time.
That said, Comscore’s data provides a view of U.S. marketshare, and Comcast’s numbers suggest that both maps have very large user-bases. ↩︎