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New mobile Web Google Maps highlights sorry state of native iOS app

Google released an update to the mobile Web version of Google Maps on Friday, adding many features previously included in the native app—well, the Android app, anyway. The added features bring Web Maps up to par with the native app Android users have had for some time, though the Web app is less slick on Android in comparison to the native app. The mobile Web version also makes many features available to iOS users that never made it to the native app, such as bicycling route overlays and directions.

With the new mobile Web version of Google Maps, users have access to many features that previously only existed in the desktop and Android versions of the program: clickable icons for transit stations and businesses; satellite, traffic, and bike path layers; and integration with Places pages that can include information like a business's hours and customer ratings and reviews.

The new Web version of Maps gives Android users some flexibility: if they search for a business or restaurant on Google and get a Maps result, clicking the map's picture or Get Directions button gives them an option to open it in either the Web or app version of Maps.

Once they're in the Web or native version of Maps, Android users can view the Places page, layer on traffic congestion views, and access their own maps and destinations through their Google profile. A button to the right of the search bar lets you flip back and forth between directions and the map.

But this is nothing that the newest version of the Android app doesn't already do, and the native version has additional functionality with the option for Street View. The Web version is much slower with zooming and scrolling, and it takes a long time to adjust the resolution of the map.

Since the new Web Maps doesn't do a whole lot for Google's own Android users, it's ostensibly targeted at the other phone OSes. This includes iOS, where the Google Maps native app has languished for some time.

Getting to the newer, better version of Maps requires some work on iOS—tapping the map or Get Directions button that come up in a search for a location will cycle you away into the native app. To get all the new functionality goodness, iOS users must go directly to and work from there, though some buttons will still push you into the pared-down native Maps.

The Web Maps works well on iOS, and scrolling and zooming are as smooth as in the native app version. iOS users also get the bicycling route layers and direction as well as Places page integration.

But Google's update of the Web version of Maps leaves us wondering why the company is letting the native iOS app continue to lag behind. A Google representative told Ars that the Web app was updated to keep it "similar to the desktop experience," and so that newly available desktop features could be "made quickly available on mobile browsers without any user effort."

Efficiency-wise, there probably isn't a quicker way to get new features to iOS, Android, BlackBerry, and Windows Phone users in one fell swoop. Since the new Web Maps adds location-tracking, there's not even any point in keeping the native iOS Maps around. Too bad you can't delete it from your phone.

Google's abandonment of the native iOS app may be in response to some of Apple's indications that it intends to create its own mapping application. Around a year ago, Apple acquired both the online mapping company Placebase and mapping mashup firm Poly9, which was about the same time that the native iOS app started to diverse, capability-wise, from the desktop and Android versions. Lately, speculations have arisen that Apple will create mapping features that integrate with a revamped MobileMe.

Google's choice to stay on the minds of iOS users through Web apps seems to indicate Google wants to give Apple its space. But until Apple presents a homegrown mapping solution—if ever it does—the Web Maps will likely get pretty cozy with any iOS screen that it encounters.

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Bijendra Narsinghani

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