SAN FRANCISCO -- Google Maps has found its way back to the iPhone.

The world's most popular online mapping system returned late Wednesday with the release of the Google Maps iPhone app. The release comes nearly three months after Apple Inc. replaced Google Maps as the device's built-in navigation system and inserted its own map software into the latest version of its mobile operating system.

Apple's maps application proved to be far inferior to Google's, turning what was supposed to be a setback for Google into a vindication.

The product's shoddiness prompted Apple CEO Tim Cook to issue a rare public apology and recommend that iPhone owners consider using Google maps through a mobile Web browser or seek other alternatives until his company could fix the problems. Cook also replaced Scott Forstall, the executive in charge of Apple's mobile operating system, after the company's maps app became the subject of widespread ridicule.

Among other things, Apple's maps misplaced landmarks, overlooked towns and sometimes got people horribly lost. In one example brought to light this week, Australian police derided Apple's maps as "life-threatening" because the system steered people looking for the city of Mildura into a sweltering, remote desert 44 miles from their desired destination.

Google Inc., in contrast, is hailing its new iPhone app as a major improvement from the one evicted by Apple.

Digital maps are key battleground in mobile computing because they get used frequently on smartphones and can pinpoint a user's whereabouts. That information is so prized by advertisers that they're willing to pay much higher rates for marketing messages aimed at a prospective customer in a particular location, said Greg Sterling, an analyst at Opus Research.

Google's new iPhone mapping app offers street-level photography of local neighborhoods for the first time on Apple's mobile operating system, as well as three-dimensional views, public transit directions and listings for more than 80 million businesses around the world.