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Examining Maps in the Wake of Tim Cook’s Apology

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Since the release of iOS 6, the Internet has been overrun with criticisms of Apple’s new Maps app, which replaces the previous Google Maps-driven Maps app with entirely new code and data. Most notably, Apple’s new Maps suffers from incomplete and incorrect data and imagery, and lacks the transit directions that many people relied upon in Google Maps. Even more troubling for some people was the loss of saved locations without warning of any sort — one of our readers was particularly distraught to lose numerous saved locations of sentimental places in her life, built up in Maps over time since her first iPhone.

The criticism reached a sufficient pitch that Apple CEO Tim Cook, much as Steve Jobs did in similar situations, has released a public letter addressing the topic. In the letter, Cook acknowledges the problems, apologizes for the frustration it has caused iOS users, recommends that users try alternative apps and Web-based services, and promises that Apple will improve Maps.

Unsurprisingly, Cook paints Apple’s decision to replace the long-standing Maps app as driven by the desire to add features that weren’t possible with the old app. Hidden behind that statement are competitive agendas that may never be fully known, with Apple reportedly complaining that Google wasn’t bringing features like turn-by-turn directions and vector-based maps to the iPhone version of Maps long after those features had appeared on Android phones. But Apple didn’t have to make the move now either; The Verge reports that Apple’s contract with Google for Google Maps had over a year left. What’s unclear is which company was actually responsible for the Maps app, and whether the contract precluded the addition of new features.

More generally, Apple is congenitally uncomfortable with being reliant on other companies for core capabilities of its products, and that’s especially true with competitors like Google. (Also dropped in iOS 6 was the bundled YouTube app, which had failed to keep pace with YouTube changes, though Google quickly pushed out a new YouTube app for the iPhone.)

So what lessons are there to be learned from the Maps debacle, and what should we think about it? (Thanks to everyone who contributed to the TidBITS Talk discussion about Maps, where many opinions were aired, and which informed some of my thinking on this topic.)

Clearly, Apple screwed up here. Creating a mapping service is unquestionably a Herculean task, and when Google Maps debuted, it certainly suffered from its share of embarrassing errors and omissions. But given how Apple featured Maps in iOS 6 presentations, it seems as though Apple executives failed to realize that the new Maps was not sufficiently mature. That’s the charitable view; the less-charitable might think that Apple knew full well that the new Maps didn’t measure up but felt that its limitations wouldn’t hinder sales of iOS devices. The problems with Maps may not have slowed iPhone 5 sales, but they do make it harder to trust Apple in the future, and those who lost important saved locations feel even more let down.

It’s important to realize that the new Maps doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It can’t be — and shouldn’t be — evaluated solely on its own merits because it enters a world already populated by high-quality mapping services with which users have significant experience. We know what a mapping app can do, and should do, and Apple should have realized that they’d need to meet that basic level before launching. Perhaps there was no way to determine just how inaccurate it would be ahead of time (though Security Editor Rich Mogull found that the pre-release version of Maps had trouble even in Silicon Valley), but the lack of transit directions seems painfully obvious.

Should you use Maps? If you’re just exploring an area remotely, certainly. If data accuracy isn’t of paramount importance, as it is when actually navigating to an unfamiliar area, then Maps is fine. But if you have previously relied on Maps for directions, I encourage you to get an alternative mapping program or Web-based service, either to replace Maps in everyday use or to serve as a backup in case Maps lets you down. In my tests so far, Maps has performed adequately, though its spoken directions aren’t as precise or helpful as Navigon’s (read on).

During that time driving around Silicon Valley, Rich Mogull relied instead on Navigon, which has just added Urban Guidance that considers public transit when calculating pedestrian routes, along with a Last Mile feature that automatically offers walking directions when you park near your destination. Navigon is my favorite GPS navigation app as well, thanks in part to its system for storing maps (where I drive, cellular coverage can be spotty) but breaking them up by location, so I don’t have to waste gigabytes of space on one app. But there are many others, including the free Waze and MapQuest, and the paid MotionX, Garmin StreetPilot, CoPilot, and TomTom. Plus, it seems likely that Google will eventually publish an independent Google Maps app for iOS; I can’t imagine why Google hasn’t done so already, unless the delay is due to behind-the-scenes negotiations with Apple.

Of course, the new Maps can and will improve. Most of the problems revolve around the server side of the equation, and with over 100 million users searching for billions of locations per month, Apple will have unimaginable amounts of data with which to improve the mapping databases that underpin both the visual maps and directions. Could Apple have started collecting that data with the old Maps app, or was that data funneled only to Google? We may never know.

A significant way that Apple can improve Maps is when users report problems; if you tap the lower-right corner of the map display to reveal the settings, there’s a link to Report a Problem; a similar button appears in the detail page for any point of interest. But some people are put out that a company with Apple’s billions of dollars is seemingly relying on user efforts rather than providing better quality data to start. Others have pointed out that it’s fairly clumsy to report problems in iOS, as opposed to within a Web-based interface on a computer.

Speaking of a Web-based version of Maps, Apple does seem to be moving in that direction. Sharing a location from Maps generates a maps.apple.com URL, and while clicking that link currently redirects to Google Maps, I can’t see Apple continuing to give Google that traffic and ad revenue going forward. Perhaps we’ll see a Maps icon in the iCloud Web interface soon.

In the end, I think Apple released this new Maps prematurely, and the company deserves all the lumps it’s receiving. That said, Tim Cook’s apology was generally spot on, and a much-appreciated acknowledgement of problems the company caused through inattention and hubris. Let’s hope that the apology is not just empty words, and the embarrassment causes Apple to refocus on software quality and reexamine policies that exist only to give Apple control rather than improving the experience for everyone in the ecosystem.

 

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Comments about Examining Maps in the Wake of Tim Cook’s Apology

Francisco Hirsch  2012-09-28 15:15
maps.apple.com redirects me to http://www.apple.com/ios/maps/
Adam Engst  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2012-09-28 15:45
Yes, but if you share a URL from Maps and look at it, it goes to maps.apple.com and then redirects to the same location on maps.google.com.
Francisco Hirsch  2012-09-28 15:30
I live in Buenos Aires (Argentina). Neither Apple nor Google are who provide the maps.
In Google's case its Inav/Geosistemas SRL.
In Apple's case it's Tomtom.
Apple maps shows railway lines; Google's don't.
With both the street name usually has to be written exactly as in the respective map or you end in a very different place (in other words: I must know where the correct address is to get there). And, obviously, both use slightly different ways to write. So now I find I have to have two entries in my address book: one for Maps, another for Google
Michael Ellis Day  2012-09-29 01:45
Jean-Louis Gassee's point that Apple inflicted the PR fiasco on themselves by overhyping the maps is a good lesson to take from this. Had they presented it as a beta, the first baby steps of a new feature, that would have helped.

Also, had Apple been straight with Google (even as a competitor!) and openly said "Fair warning, we'll be doing our own maps app with iOS 6, so now's the time to create a Google Maps app" that would have helped too. I think Google is lying if they claim to have been taken by surprise...but if Apple had been direct about this, no one would have to make excuses now.
Nicholas Barnard  2012-09-29 02:44
Google really has no excuse. As soon as Apple started buying mapping companies they should've put together a team to write an iOS Maps app to be ready on day one.

What I find interesting is no one is talking about the fact that Google had a YouTube app ready on day one. From what I've heard the YouTube team was unhappy with the presentation of YouTube on iOS and that the features weren't at parity so they were pushing for Apple to remove the built in YouTube app so they could ship their own.

In the same way Google wanted to get additional mapping features (Google Latitude, etc) on iOS. When Apple said no to adding those features, they should've started working on their own iOS app...

IMHO, Apple was more than clear enough with Google: We're not going to implement the features you want, and we've been buying mapping companies. If Google can't read between those lines, Larry and Sergey need to have their glasses checked.
Adam Engst  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2012-10-01 10:22
Presenting Maps as beta would have helped some, but people really do rely on accurate mapping, and it's hard to win back that trust once it's gone. Siri is still in beta, and still isn't trustworthy, but you don't have to rely on Siri for anything real.
Matt Neuburg  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2012-09-29 12:16
iOS 6 has been in beta for what, six months? And all that time beta users have been warning (to put it mildly) about the maps. So why didn't Apple hear them? Why didn't they delay this change?

I think this a very telling sign of how Apple is now run. When Steve was in charge, for all his faults, he could make the company stop and turn on a dime if something was wrong. Now it's just a big corporation like any other; no one is running it, no one can control it, its fate and behavior depend on thousands of issues and personality conflicts and habits and rules we can't see.
Glenn Fleishman  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2012-09-29 12:57
Then how did MobileMe get launched when it essentially didn't work? Lots of Apple services and software limp along and have serious bugs (including major security ones) that weren't rectified for years or still aren't. This is retroactive hagiography.

Really, the problem here is a disconnect between the people managing the product and the executives who needed it delivered. The folks who knew how bad the data (not the app) was must have reassure the people who needed both data and app to be superb that it was good enough.

I suspect we will hear about firings soon and new top-level map data people being installed (if any of that leaks out).
artMonster  2012-09-29 21:31
Scott Forstall level firing? Also, extra points for the use of retroactive hagiography. Lots of that going around these days.
izidor  2012-10-02 13:26
In defence of MobileMe decision - wasn't it a scalability problem? Meaning you don't know how it will work with many users until you release it. So trusting your developers is the only possibility.

Maps on the other hand sucks even if you are the only user. So it is easier to make a decision yourself withou relying on others.
Adam Engst  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2012-10-02 14:22
MobileMe had lots of problems beyond pure scalability, particularly early on. :-)
A major freeway is closed this weekend in Los Angeles and I compared Apple Maps, Google Maps, Mapquest, and Navigon. Mapquest seemed to know nothing about it. Navigon put "Road Closed" signs on the map where you select which route you want, but still routes you along the closed freeway (I have the "Traffic Live" option installed. Google Maps put up a note that "This route may have road closures." Apple Maps only showed routes around the closure (i.e. knew the road was closed). Apple did a good job, although if you didn't know about the closure you'd sure be confused why it wasn't using the obvious route—no indication of why that route was being avoided.

This is a recurring problem with all the map apps, they can't seem to tell the different between no traffic and a road closure.

PS. The media has named the road closure Carmageddon 2 (1 was an earlier weekend closure) for those not in the US or not watching the news. This seems to have gathered national attention.
Glenn Fleishman  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2012-09-29 13:32
Do you have Show Traffic on in Maps? I found when I did that, I get little red minus sign circles that, when tapped, reveal some additional information.
artMonster  2012-09-29 20:44
I do not think this is a case of "Not Invented Here Syndrome" at all. In the long run this is something that will benefit Apple's customers. Just as the clamor over the so-called antenna "fiasco" seems so reactionary now, aided and abetted by pundits both high and low, this too will end up the same way.
Adam Engst  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2012-09-30 16:31
Whether or not it will benefit Apple's customers in the future is unknown, but the new Maps is definitely a case of Not Invented Here, something that Apple is known for. Do note that Not Invented Here isn't always negative - just that a company may be allergic to being reliant on another company, especially a competitor.
artMonster  2012-09-30 17:00
Apple's Maps is benefitting me exceptionally well here in Seattle. I realize others are having a different experience, and my hope is that Apple will improve it to where it benefits the vast majority of users. I was thinking of Not Invented Here as an aversion to anything not produced in house, something the old Apple used to do.

http://www.joelonsoftware.com/articles/fog0000000007.html

I just don't see that as the case here. I do think this was a difficult business decision that events made inevitable. Perhaps they should have been more honest about the flaws, but that doesn't seem to be the way they roll out any program or product.
Greg C  2012-09-30 20:47
When rumors first started about Apple doing its own maps some time back, there was talk of basing it on OpenStreet maps. I am from Australia and live in Japan, hardly technical backwaters, but I immediately feared the worst. OpenStreet maps, essentially a hobby project, are not for prime time. Perhaps the coverage in the US is good; I don't know. But there are other accurate sources other than Google in Japan that Apple could have used.

Fast forward to the release of Maps on iOS, and all the errors in the OpenStreet maps are still there (roads going thru rivers without benefit of a bridge, etc.).

For what it's worth, the new app works fine. It's the data. Nearly every railway station in Japan has an icon in the correct location, and a second icon 1km up the road. The hospital across the road is a restaurant, etc.

The problem going forward is one of trusting the data in Maps. That trust may take years to return.
Adam Engst  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2012-10-01 08:42
If you tap the lower-right corner of Maps to reveal the settings page, there is a link that says "Data from TomTom, others" and tapping that reveals Apple's full (long) list of data providers, and OpenStreet is included. The number of data source is quite impressive, but as is always the case with computing devices, garbage in, garbage out.
Ross Anderson  2012-10-02 00:54
There's an inherent contradiction in both Adam and Tim Cook's advice (which is, essentially, use another mapping app until Maps gets better): since it relies mostly on user input to improve data accuracy, if nobody uses it, how will it get better?
Adam Engst  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2012-10-02 10:05
Apple has what, $100 billion in cash? Let them fix it rather than ask us to donate our time. :-)
How can a company fix an error they are unaware of? Yes, they need to spend money to fix the data, perhaps by using a different source in problematic areas. But the ability to report errors--and get them corrected--is essential for both the company and its users.
izidor  2012-10-02 14:02
Ever heard of paid testers? I know of companies employing or contracting whole buildings of testers to test-drive software before release. With Apple's cash mountain they could send out a lot of testers.
Adam Engst  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2012-10-02 14:19
Izidor's suggestion of paid testers is spot on, but there are also probably automated ways of analyzing how users interact with Maps that might show problems. For instance, if Maps delivers a set of instructions, and everyone who follows them to a specific turn goes another way, perhaps that turn is incorrect.

Plus, it sounds from what someone else said that Apple may be defaulting to TomTom's data most of the time, and perhaps Maps needs to put alternative sets of directions using different data in competition with each other - present them to different people and see which work better.
Herwig Niggemann  2012-10-02 03:32
The erros in Apple Map are identical from TomTom, if you use both navigators. The same address is correct in google. It looks like the TomTom Data are a major source of not really exact datas.
SixnaHalfFeet  2012-10-02 12:10
I still have yet to experience most of the problems that I have read so many complaints about. I was in Seattle because my wife developed a serious medical condition and was in the hospital (I'm a country bumpkin). I used Apple's new maps app to get around and never had a problem with it. It was great! I love the turn by turn directions. There are a few minor annoyances of getting used to a new program, but otherwise I really loved the app, except for the way it displays heavy traffic, easy to miss at a glance.

As for those who lost saved positions in the old Maps app, all I can say is take it from one who has used a paper planner, Palm OS, and now iOS: never rely on app specific data. Save all your data in a format that will still be accessible even if the app you rely on eventually goes away, or at least in multiple different apps. If you have a special location you want to save, put the location data in an address book entry and export the vcard files to save in a safe location. etc
Rick Binger  2012-10-02 14:35
I don't understand this statement:

"Most of the problems revolve around the server side of the equation, and with over 100 million users searching for billions of locations per month, Apple will have unimaginable amounts of data with which to improve the mapping databases that underpin both the visual maps and directions."

How is the fact that I simply looked up an address going to help "improve" Apple's Maps app?
Adam Engst  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2012-10-02 14:47
They don't just have the information that you looked up an address. They also know (or could know - I don't actually know what they record) what searches came before and after, how long you spent looking at it, whether you got directions, if you followed them accurately, if you deviated in big ways or small ways, how fast you travelled, and so on. Mapping is a "big data" problem.
Girish Kulkarni  2012-10-04 04:45
Is it just me or do many others feel that iOS 6 has too many rough edges for what we have come to expect from Apple? Apart from Maps and battery life, I noticed that FaceTime’s performance on iOS has visibly worsened. Whether on my iPhone 4S or my iPad 3, video quality in FaceTime is poorer than before. Plus—for the same Internet bandwidth as before on both ends of the line—the screen goes black with the “Reconnecting” message every few seconds. I wonder why this has not come up in any of the forums.