Apple’s iOS 6 Maps: its implications for transit agencies, developers, and customers

Transit directions as they currently appear in the Maps application (iOS 5.1)

Earlier this week, Apple provided a beta version of iOS 6, an upcoming operating system for iPhone, iPod, and iPad devices.  iOS 6 will be released this fall.  Among the changes will be a major overhaul to the default “Maps” application.  Apple will no longer be using cartography and routing from Google, instead utilizing other sources.  Based on the beta version, it appears that transit directions will no longer be integrated into the Maps application.  Instead, the Maps application will refer users to 3rd party transit applications through an application directory.  This directory organizes applications based on geographic region.  For more details onthis, refer to the blog post by Andy Baio that describes how transit is treated in iOS 6.

The change to transit features in iOS 6 will have several implications for transit agencies, developers, and customers.

As Joe Hughes points out, Apple’s transit app directory will be like a platform-specific City-Go-Round.  This will be result in more downloads of transit apps and more revenue for developers.  This will fuel more competition and innovation.  It is likely that customers will see more and better choices for agency and region-specific apps — apps that are tailored to specific service features and regional needs.  Of course, some point out that this approach is also narrowly interested on Apple’s part: it will bolster the iOS economy (Apple takes a commission on app sales), but comes at the expense of an integrated user experience.  Clay Johnson (author of The Information Diet) offers further discussion.

Since choice among 3rd party applications will become even more important, Apple’s change makes ”public release of transit data beyond exclusive agreements with individual vendors  [such as Google]” (Joachim Pfeiffer) even more important.  (Read more about open data here.)

The tradeoff of Apple’s approach that there are more steps, and thus barriers, to accessing transit data. Currently, on Android, iPhone, and other devices, transit and driving directions are presented on an equal footing; transit is just one tap away. Also, I can go to an unfamiliar place and use a familiar app to find my way on transit.

It says something that in Apple’s iOS 6 “preview” page a significant amount of copy is devoted to “Turn-by-Turn Navigation” (driving) and “Traffic”. Compare to Google’s Maps for mobile page, which presents navigation and directions features for biking, walking, driving, and transit without giving more attention to any one mode. From their marketing alone, it appears that Apple does not consider their transit-using customers (like me) to be as important as motorists.  Instead, Apple is more interested in partnering with 9 auto companies for their new Eyes-Free feature.  I think this is a major oversight: mobile technology is very important to transit users, and there are many of us.  Does anyone know of good statistics about how many smartphone users are also transit riders?  I will post an update if I find any information.

It would be great to see Apple bring their famed emphasis on user experience to bear in public transportation. Google’s already doing an amazing job with transit routing and features on a large-scale. There is a lot of small-scale innovation going on too.  I hope Apple eventually throws their hat in the ring.

In the meantime, this change has spurred a passionate discussion about the importance of transit information.  Walk Score created a social media campaign to tell Apple that transit and walking matter.  So far, transit agencies have been fairly quiet, but one advocacy organization in South Carolina has posted about this change.  There has been a fair amount of media coverage of iOS 6 that discusses the loss of integrated transit information.

Meanwhile, read what some others think at at the transit-developers list.

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