Apple Maps In iOS 6: What Happens When You Take A Step Back With User Experience?

Apple’s iOS 6 will be available for users to download and install on September 19, two days before the iPhone 5 is set to hit shelves. As per usual, the update brings a lot of new stuff to the table. Good stuff that will significantly improve user experience. But in a rare move for Apple, it also ticks the needle back a few notches in at least one big way: Google Maps is leaving as the platform’s built-in solution.

Apple’s replacement, its own house-built (with a little help from TomTom, Waze and others), just isn’t at the same level as Google’s solution, and for good reason. As was discussed in the panel I hosted yesterday at TechCrunch Disrupt (embedded below), Google has had a huge head start on maps, having worked on Google Maps since the kernel behind it was acquired when the company bought Where 2 Technologies in 2005.

For its part, Apple seems to have had a similar starting point, but one that took place a full four years later when it bought Placebase in 2009. And without a web-based precursor, there’s been nothing for the company to cut its teeth on. The refinement process will have to happen solely on a mobile platform, with a smaller user base and less flexibility in terms of pushing fixes and major improvements between iOS point version releases.

Maps will be something Apple users aren’t used to: a significant backslide in a core element of a product that people have come to understand how to use naturally and without much thought. It’s not insignificant – it changes fundamentally the process of getting directions, especially for those who use public transit, and not for the better. Using Yelp for points of interest is good, but still doesn’t feel quite up to the level of searching for places in Google Maps.

Ultimately making the move to its own maps solution will probably end up as a win for consumers. Competition between the two products will drive innovation on both sides, so Android users should also benefit, and Apple will ultimately build a product that feels at home on a device where it currently comes across as a bit of a stranger. Turn-by-turn navigation is a hugely welcome addition, and one that Android users have had for a while now. There have also already been a whole lot of improvements made to the product since Apple’s first iOS 6 beta release, so the company is clearly working hard to raise the bar.

Hard work or no, users will react to the change, and most won’t worry about being patient with a company just starting out on fresh new legs in a brand new area, as Macworld’s Jason Snell points out in the clip below. This isn’t likely to dampen pre-order enthusiasm for the iPhone 5, but it will be a good opportunity to see what happens when Apple messes with some very basic parts of the formula that’s made the iPhone the massive success it is today.