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Cartography Comparison: Google & Apple

What are the biggest differences between Google Maps & Apple Maps?2016

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Google Maps and Apple Maps. At first glance, the columns below look very similar...

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...but would you believe that the maps are actually very different?

From icons:

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As you can see, Google and Apple Maps show surprisingly different (and often opposite) views of the world. But what makes these differences even more interesting is how ubiquitous both maps have become…

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Four years ago, Google announced that Google Maps had reached one billion unique monthly users. Today, that number is even larger.

One billion is one out of every seven people on Earth:

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One billion is so large that even 1% of one billion is huge. It’s larger than America’s largest city:

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Put another way, just 1% of Google Maps’s user base is larger than all of this:

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📷 New York City | Photo by Faisal Yaqub

But Apple Maps is also huge.

At the end of last year, Nielsen reported the top mobile apps in the U.S., and Google Maps and Apple Maps both made the Top 10:

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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:

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📱 Google Maps in Uber's iOS app

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Google’s & Apple’s maps in Instagram, Twitter, Periscope, Lyft, Foursquare, Yelp, and Shazam.

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. For instance:

  • What are each map’s biases?
  • 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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At its heart, this essay compares 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 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:

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To give you a better idea of what these map pairs look like, here’s a few higher-resolution versions:

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Speaking of New York, we’ll center our New York map pairs on the Empire State Building:

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📷 Photo by Faisal Yaqub

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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📷 Photo by Justin O’Beirne

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📷 Photo by David Castor

Why New York, San Francisco, and London?

  • 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 one of Europe’s largest cities.
  • 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. Instead, we want to see what Google and Apple label when they have thousands of things to choose from.
  • 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 have a variety of different kinds of places around them.

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. The map screenshots reflect the default, out-of-the-box experience that someone would have upon using them for the first time.