When Apple first debuted its extremely popular wearable back in 2015, Google was actually one of the first developers to embrace the fledgling watchOS platform, with an update to its Google Maps iOS app that extended the navigation experience to users’ wrists.
Unfortunately, for reasons that we’ve never quite been sure of, Google Maps’ sojourn on the Apple Watch was relatively short-lived; only two years later, in 2017, the watchOS version of Google Maps mysteriously vanished in an update to its parent iPhone app.
Google never explained why it did this, but since it came at a time when Apple was pushing developers over to native watchOS apps rather than just apps that acted as “second screens” to their iPhone counterparts, it’s likely Google simply didn’t want to put the effort into updating and supporting the wrist version of its mapping app.
Google was also far from alone in this decision — it was joined by several other high-profile apps such as Amazon, eBay, and Instagram that all disappeared around the same time, and even some very popular watchOS apps such as the transportation scheduling app Transit went away for a couple of years, although the developers promised from the beginning that it would eventually be returning once they’d retooled it.
Some of these watchOS apps weren’t really missed, as many developers had originally created Apple Watch apps just for the sake of having Apple Watch apps, and a lot of them didn’t really offer any functionality that users needed to have on their wrists.
However, Google Maps was one of the few that actually was useful, saving folks the trouble of having to pull out their iPhone just to check navigation directions.
Google continued to be tight-lipped about its plans for bringing back an Apple Watch version, ceding much of its territory to Apple Maps as users gave up on any hope of Google’s mapping app ever making a return to the wearable. However, last month Google suddenly announced out of the blue that it would be bringing Google Maps back to the Apple Watch, as well as offering several new improvements for Apple’s CarPlay platform.
While the new CarPlay improvements came the same day Google made its announcement, Google said the Apple Watch update would be rolling out “in the coming weeks,” and while it offered a brief preview of the app, showing that users would be able to get navigation directions for driving, cycling, walking, and public transit, it also left a few questions unanswered, such as whether it would be usable as a standalone app without a paired iPhone nearby.
Google Maps Is Here
This week, however, marks the day that the Google Maps app finally returns to the Apple Watch after a three-year hiatus, and for iPhone users who are still solidly in the Google Maps camp, it’s a welcome arrival worth waiting for.
However, it looks like there are areas in which Apple’s own Maps app on the watch will still have the edge, and not even because Apple is reserving any special APIs for itself; Google simply doesn’t seem to have implemented the full range of capabilities that it could have to bring it on par with Apple Maps on the wearable.
The biggest limitation right now seems to be that, as Google hinted at last month, you won’t be able to actually start a new trip directly from the Apple Watch. You’ll be able to save several frequently-visited locations, so getting directions to places like home, work, school, the gym, or a friend’s house shouldn’t be a problem, but if you’re looking for somewhere new, you’re still going to need to pull out your iPhone to start the trip.
Once you’ve done that, however, Google Maps will provide you with full step-by-step or turn-by-turn directions right on your wrist, as well as estimated arrival time. You can also choose your preferred navigation mode directly from your wrist, such as switching between walking, driving, and transit, with time estimates provided for each.
Further, unlike Apple Maps, Google Maps on the Apple Watch doesn’t actually display live maps. What you’ll see is simply a list of directions letting you know where you’re going and what turns to make, and as we expected, it also doesn’t yet work as a standalone app, so even if you have a cellular-capable Apple Watch model, you’ll still need to take your iPhone with you.
That said, Google has brought at least one new feature on the Apple Watch that will close the gap with Apple Maps: You can now get haptic feedback for guidance during navigation, meaning that your watch will notify you when it’s time to make a turn.
This was a feature that Apple Maps has offered from the beginning that was conspicuously absent in Google’s first attempt at Maps on the Apple Watch. Google Maps also now offers a complication that you can put on your watch face for quick access to the app.
Stay tuned as we’ll definitely have more to say and some tips and tricks to share on using Google Maps on the Apple Watch once we’ve had a chance to put it through its paces. For now, you can try out the Apple Watch version for yourself simply by downloading the latest update to the iPhone Google Maps app update from the App Store.