Transit apps from Embark and Tapone see big boost in users with iOS 6 launch

Apple's had all kinds of unexpected issues with its brand new Maps app, but when it comes to transit directions we knew well in advance that they wouldn't be included in Maps; when the new app was announced at WWDC, it was clear that third parties would be expected to pick up the slack via iOS's new Routing API. Already, a few other companies are stepping in for iOS 6 users to take over that responsibility.

The Maps app now automatically searches for transit-aware apps that cover your geography, and links you to the App Store to download or buy relevant tools when you ask for transit directions. Given that, it's probably a good idea to preload a transit app for a new city if you're expecting to need directions when you get there, especially if you have a slow or pricey data connection. Of course, that geographic app matching isn't quite perfect yet: last week our colleague Rich Gaywood asked Maps to give him transit info near his home in Wales, and it came back with Navigon (mostly thought of as a driving nav app) plus transit apps for London. (London's about 140 miles away from him.)

The developers behind many transit-related iOS apps have been happy to provide options for iOS 6 users, and CNET notes that they've seen big increases in their user base. Embark, the publisher of 12 local transit apps covering eight metro areas, has seen huge growth in the last week, hitting over 40 million trips so far and over 100,000 downloads since the launch of iOS 6.

When we spoke to Embark founder David Hodge last week, he emphasized that his company's approach to transit directions differed from Google's mostly data-driven tactics. "We want to understand the local nuances... We go to New York and say 'How fast do people walk here? What are the transfer times [in a station]?'" Google's transit routing teams aren't able to spend enough time in each city they cover to get the granular info needed, he says. This emphasis on real-world, locally gathered routing support helps Embark's apps gain in accuracy. The trade-off is that if there's no Embark app for your town, they can't help you (although Hodge hints that many more cities are on the way).

Embark's philosophy is to cloak the complexity of transit routing and the elaborate back-end scheduling tech with a simple interface that puts the busy commuter in control. "In the age of the smartphone, it should be much easier to get around," says Hodge.

One key to making it easy is making sure that the apps work equally well offline as online. Unlike Google Maps's online-only transit routing -- which is pretty much useless once you're underground in a subway system like New York or Boston's and lose your cellular data -- the Embark apps are engineered to handle point to point routing without needing a data connection. "We'll plan a trip even if you're sitting inside a submarine," Hodge jokes. Above ground, if you run into a situation that the Embark app can't handle (bus directions in New York City, for instance), then of course the web version of Google Maps is only a Safari tap away.

Tapone's Transit also saw a big spike in downloads, users and subscribers. Presumably almost all these new downloads were coming from folks who upgraded to iOS 6, and were forced to go in search of new transit directions because the new Maps app couldn't provide them.

As to why Apple chose to hand off the transit piece of the puzzle to third parties this time around: it's apparently harder than it looks to get accurate, effective transit directions rolled into Maps, and even Google's effort didn't provide universal or completely accurate coverage. Giving local "best of breed" apps the chance to handle their specific transit systems seems to be the most effective way to keep providing those directions to users, and it's definitely giving a boost to these developers.

Based on all the work Apple has to do to get the rest of Maps into shape, it's unlikely the company will try to "Sherlock" these apps and reintroduce its own form of transit directions, at least during the lifetime of iOS 6. With the tight integration of transit directions into Google Maps, however, the extra click of having to launch an external app does seem to be a drag on usability. There may come a point where Apple considers the usability tradeoff to be too much, and tries to bring transit directions back under the Maps umbrella.

For now, however, the third-party transit apps are where it's at. And there's always the chance that Apple could acquire one or more of these companies -- most of its map division is made up of technology from companies like Placebase, Poly9, and C3, all of which it acquired while putting the new app together. Whether it's from third-party apps or an official solution, however, it's good to know that most users will still have access to their directions no matter what.