“It has been a wonderful success for us,” says Daniel Graf about Google Maps for iOS. Originally from Switzerland, Graf worked for Leica and Phillips, and went on to co-found video service Kyte before landing at Google in 2011. There, he ran the mobile apps lab before taking the role of director of Google Maps for mobile, where he oversees the Android and iOS versions of the iconic mapping app. We recently got the chance to spend a few minutes with Graf at Google’s Mountain View headquarters to discuss the iOS app, which launched last December. He’s clearly passionate and proud of his work: “It has been an interesting project, because we got the opportunity to start from scratch.” Graf explains that the Android version “is actually seven years of history, seven years of product, [...] seven years of user experience. On iOS, we didn’t have those seven years so that gave us a chance to take a step back and say. ‘Hey, what would be the next-generation mobile mapping experience?’” Read on after the break.
It’s not just Google Maps for iOS that’s been revamped. Over the past nine months, the company’s been busy updating its mobile apps across the board with a more cohesive look and feel. It all started with Google Now — launched alongside Jelly Bean at Google I/O — followed by Google+ on both platforms, and more recently GMail and Google Maps on iOS. Interestingly, the Android version has not (yet) been updated to reflect the new design language. The iOS app makes extensive use of info sheets similar to those used in Google Now. “Given the feedback we have gotten from our audience about the user experience here, I would say this is kind of the direction we want to move forward,” says Graf. “It’s way more use-case driven … It should actually happen based on your actions.”
We asked Graf what challenges his team encountered while building Google Maps for iOS. “With a mapping app, it’s actually similar to a gaming app because the map you see here, the 3D rendering we have here, so you need a 3D renderer; you need an engine for that, and that was new for us — a 3D renderer for iOS.” The iOS app is written in Objective C (versus Java on Android) and required fine tuning: “To get that to a performance [level] where we have it now, that was definitely a technical challenge.” But there was another hurdle on iOS: “There’s no common login infrastructure like we have on Android — hopefully that’s coming.” When pressed whether this is a political issue (related to Apple’s stringent app requirements) Graf mentions that “it’s a business decision, but it’s a technical challenge as well.”
Despite being more polished than its Android counterpart, Google Maps for iOS lacks some features, such as Latitude (it’s a separate app). Graf admits that “it would be quite interesting to see your friends on the map within Google Maps for mobile.” For this version, however, it was important to simplify: “We obviously wanted this app out before the holidays, which we managed to do in December, so there was a lot of time pressure to get it out but we didn’t want to make compromises so we said is let’s focus on the key use cases which I think we nailed.” We inquired about how much Google Maps development is cross-platform. “Of course we have an Android team; we have an iOS team; we have different platform teams and they work very closely together,” says Graf. “You do want basically the best experience possible for a platform, so you probably have to develop native.” Watch the full video interview above.