Apple has announced that its upcoming Maps application for the iPhone and iPad won't include local public transit directions, formerly supplied by Google. While the absence of bus, train and subway information is sure to irritate some users, it represents an opportunity for developers.
"We think it's a good thing for the whole space," says David Hodge, CEO of Embark, a mobile transit app that received a nod from New York's MTA earlier this year. "Ultimately, it will be better for users. It might be a little bit of a rough transition at first, but I think it will get pretty good pretty quickly."
The Challenges of Mapping Mass Transit
Why is Apple shipping one of its biggest mobile utilities without such an important feature? For one, transit mapping is no easy task, and Apple doesn't have the resources to do it well while also finishing iOS 6, the next version of its mobile operating system. Even Google Transit, which is pretty comprehensive on a global scale, doesn't always do a perfect job of returning public transit information for a given locale. Anybody who has relied on Google Maps to get around New York City has likely come across the occasional hiccup.
"Transit is something that has a lot of nuance to it," Hodge says. "When you're Apple or Google, you have to serve on a massive scale."
Hodge reckons that his company is equipped to handle local quirks. Members of Embark's team, for example, spend time on the ground figuring out things like how quickly people tend to walk in a given city. They'll test the app in the field and then tweak its results according to what they find.
It's this attention to detail that enables third-party developers to craft solutions that avoid some of the flaws that sometimes mar Google Maps. The trade-off, of course, is that independent apps aren't likely to be as geographically comprehensive as Google's offering. The transition is going to be "like ripping off the Band-Aid" at first, Hodge admits, but he's confident that things will improve in time.
After all, Apple is about to send a horde of new users toward apps such as Embark, UpNext Maps, HopStop, iTrans, CityTransit and the plethora of city-specific mass transit apps already in the iTunes Store. If nothing else, the influx of new users searching for transit directions will entice developers to expand existing offerings and build new applications to fill the gaps.