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Examining Maps in the Wake of Tim Cook’s Apology

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 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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