Four months after disappearing from the iTunes Store Google Maps has made a triumphant return!

Regular readers know that my preferred combo is an iPad with lots of Google Apps for my workflow. The sudden loss of Google Maps stung. That sting was compounded by Apple’s subsequent substandard offering in the form of its integrated Apple Maps.

Right from the outset the new maps were an albatross for Apple, with blog posts and columns calling out its numerous shortcomings. The most notable of those came from the Australian government. CNN reports:

Inaccurate, inconvenient, ill-conceived […] now add ‘potentially life-threatening’ to the list of words being used to describe flaws in Apple’s much maligned maps app.

Police in Mildura, Australia are warning drivers to be careful about using Apple Maps to find the city, which the app has placed more than 40 miles (70 kilometers) away in the Outback.

Calling it a ‘potentially life-threatening issue,’ police say the mapping system lists Mildura, a city of 30,000 people, as being in the middle of Murray-Sunset National Park.

To put this into perspective, the national park in question has no water supply, and temperatures regularly rocket to a hellish 114 degree Fahrenheit (46 C). Police have already had to rescue several travelers lead astray by the bad info. According to CNN:

‘Some of the motorists located by police have been stranded for up to 24 hours without food or water and have walked long distances through dangerous terrain to get phone reception,’ Mildura police said in a statement.

‘Police have contacted Apple in relation to the issue and hope the matter is rectified promptly to ensure the safety of motorists travelling to Mildura. Anyone travelling to Mildura or other locations within Victoria should rely on other forms of mapping until this matter is rectified.’

The last thing anyone wants from a mapping application is to lead you astray, particularly in the amazingly harsh environment of the outback. All in all, it is harder to think of a harsher indictment of the service than that. I suppose it was out of defense that Apple decided to let Google back into the fold.

So it was shortly after Apple CEO Tim Cook issued a written apology for Maps on the company website that we saw the Google Maps become an option again.

I agree with Dan Nosowitz at Popular Science, in the four months of its absence we had all forgotten how limited the old Google Maps was:

It’s easy to forget that Google Maps for iOS was never particularly great; it was pretty, but increasingly limited, especially compared to Maps on Android. It never had turn-by-turn navigation, which Android has had since October of 2009 (!), it never had bike directions or offline caching, and it used clumsy bitmaps instead of vectors. That last one is why Google Maps for Android (and, to be fair, Apple Maps) loads faster and never looks blurry while zooming or panning.

That is no longer the case. Google spent its months of exile improving the app and bringing it up to speed with their other offerings. (Information Week has a wonderful, detailed breakdown of it if you are interested in the details. Read it here.) Once it became available for download, the news spread like wildfire across the Internet and it shot to the number one most downloaded app in its category and has stayed there.

Apple is notorious for its proprietary stance on the company products, so it is no surprise that it wanted to bring the increasingly lucrative mobile mapping under the corporate roof. The misstep came in releasing a product that should by rights have still been in beta testing.

Could this be a glimpse of things to come for post-Steve Jobs Apple? Many have speculated since his passing that it was the end of an era for the pioneering computer company. Most often these speculations predict a drop in standards and quality, seemingly more credible than ever in the wake of Map-gate.

No matter how you view it, there are a few things that cannot be disputed:

  • The entire scenario has certainly caused some brand damage to Apple.
  • Google is now the hero of the day, not only returning, but coming back bigger and better than before.
  • There is still no Google Maps app for the iPad, something that irritates users like me, for whom that’s a default device.
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