Is Apple Maps the toughest UI design brief in the world?

Within Apple's recent Dev Conference it announced a number of updates, including a soon-to-be-released iOS6. One of the updates to the operating system is a redesigned maps application. It is described (by Apple) as "Designed by Apple from the ground up". Scott Forstall casually announced that it was built by "our cartography team".

Hang on. Let's go back and consider that again. Apple have binned off Google Maps (no surprise) but they've also built their own cartography team - not a simple matter i would imagine. Then then created a graphics engine that has redrawn the entire worlds maps, all the way down to street level. Bloody hell. That's huge!

For a minute consider the scale of that project. I can't find any details of how long Apple has been laboring away on this feature (I doubt I ever will), but I'm guessing it's been years. Before we even consider the scale of the logistics, operations, technical and data management work involved in this, let's look at what it would take to design a UI that works across every map on the planet.

Earlier this year Google shared some of the design process behind Google Maps in this article.You can see how the visual language has developed over an 8 year period. Icon designs have been adapted, colours have been tweaked, labels have a specific hierarchy, text is optimised for different zoom levels, gradients are displayed differently and so on and so forth. In other words; it's shit loads of work.

The designers in Apple's Maps team have set about creating a UI that works with almost any level of detail, in every language, at varying scales, that meets accessibility standards and can be used on small screens. Probably one of the most challenging design briefs imaginable. I'm gagging to get my hands on the update and see how successful the design is.