Thursday, September 20, 2012

Apple’s iOS 6 Maps App

I was surprised to see the early reviews describe Apple’s Maps app as an improvement. Thus far, having tried it on my old iPhone 3GS, I’ve decided to keep my iPhone 4S running iOS 5. And I’m praying that there won’t be any hardware problems that require me to replace my phone with one running iOS 6. There’s no comparison between the old and new apps, unless you live in the 3D view and only visit areas where it’s available. The quality and quantity of the data, the way it’s presented, and even the user interface and interaction are much worse in Apple’s app.

Viewing Google Maps in Mobile Safari is actually not too bad, probably preferable to Apple’s app. That’s saying a lot considering Steve Job’s comments at D5. However, maps.google.com doesn’t have access to my Contacts, where I store the addresses that I want to map. And there’s no way to redirect other apps to display maps in Mobile Safari. Unfortunately, this same problem would likely affect a Google Maps app, should Google develop one and Apple approve it. I hope that they do, though. My understanding is that, for years, Google Maps on Android has been more advanced, supporting turn-by-turn, vector maps, and better caching and pre-loading. It would be nice to see that on iOS.

Also see The Amazing iOS 6 Maps and:

Nilay Patel:

Unfortunately, Apple’s new maps are simply not as good as Google’s. The release of iOS 6 yesterday was immediately followed by users complaining about the new maps, which lack a significant amount of detail and omit public transit directions. Access to high-quality maps is a critical feature for modern smartphones, and Apple’s decision to swap out Google Maps is a rare example of the company openly placing its own interests above those of its customers.

John Gruber:

Seems pretty clear the new Maps is going to be the biggest problem with iOS 6. Here’s the thing, though: we don’t know how much of this decision to switch was Apple’s alone. We do know that Apple’s existing contract with Google for Maps expired this year. It’s possible Apple tried to renew for another year or two and Google either refused (unlikely, I’d say) or offered to do so under terms Apple found unacceptable (possible, I’d say).

Lex Friedman:

We’ve known for months about some of the Maps app’s limitations—its lack of built-in public transit data, the loss of Google’s Street View offering—but the perceived weak spots in its coverage are new to consumers, and perhaps the most problematic failing of all.

Adam Fields:

The old maps app was a showcase - when I wanted to show people what the Retina iPad was really capable of, I pulled out the maps. It could display tons of data on the screen with razor sharp text (even almost too small to read but still legible), and scrolling and zooming was nearly instantaneous. […] That snappiness is simply gone. The overall performance of the app has dropped precipitously, and it now often takes 5-6 seconds for the tiles to draw after each move. It looks like there’s significantly less local caching going on, and I see a lot more of the holodeck placeholder background.

Ian Betteridge:

But there’s one little problem: Maps. In short, it’s the most half-cooked piece of software that Apple has released in my memory, which goes back far longer than I’d care to admit. Worse than Ping? I think so: Ping was, after all, easy to ignore. Maps, on the other hand, is one of the core features of any mobile phone, and Apple has completely fluffed it.

Michael DeGusta:

In total, 63 countries with a combined population of 5 billion people will be without one or more of these features they previously had in iOS. Apple is risking upsetting 70% of the world’s population, seemingly without much greater purpose than speeding the removal of their rival Google from iOS. Few consumers care about such battles though, nor should they have to.

Dan Lyons:

If the new maps app is truly this bad, how come none of those glowing first-round reviews made any mention of this fact?

Anil Dash:

Apple made this maps change despite its shortcomings because they put their own priorities for corporate strategy ahead of user experience. That’s a huge change for Apple in the post-iPod era, where they’ve built so much of their value by doing the hard work as a company so that things could be easy for users. I’m not suggesting (yet) that this is a pattern, and that Apple will start to regularly compromise its user experiences in order to focus on its squabbles with other tech titans. But history shows that dominant players in every era of operating system history have reached a turning point where they shift from the user experience and customer benefits which earned them their dominance to platform integration efforts which are primarily aimed at boxing out competitors.

Dan Frommer:

Now that we see just how crucial Google was to Apple’s Maps service, it seems even more important for Apple to make its own. This is a piece of the smartphone story that is too central to farm out. That would be like Google trying to rely on iTunes as its media store.

Apple’s Trudy Muller:

We launched this new map service knowing that it is a major initiative and we are just getting started with it. We are continuously improving it, and as Maps is a cloud-based solution, the more people use it, the better it will get.

Danny Sullivan (via John Gruber):

It sounds like Google wants its own app for iOS 6 — hence the “regardless of device” part. But it’s not confirming that this will happen soon or why it’s not already happened.

Update (2012-09-21): Clark Goble:

Personally I’ve long used MotionX for driving directions. It’s especially nice on the iPad. One of its better features is optional caching of data up to 2 meg which gives you a lot of the effect of offline maps. I’ve been hearing lots of good things about Waze as well. Even the Microsoft Bing app has extensive map support. Then there’s the free OpenMap program. Although I’ve found OpenMap accuracy problematic at times. (It’s what Apple’s used in iPhoto though) If you need street view (which I never use myself) there’s Street View. There’s also a Google Map client that purportedly does everything Apple’s map program did and more such as Google’s topo maps.

Update (2012-09-23): Jean-Louis Gassée:

The ridicule that Apple has suffered following the introduction of the Maps application in iOS 6 is largely self-inflicted. The demo was flawless, 2D and 3D maps, turn-by-turn navigation, spectacular flyovers…but not a word from the stage about the app’s limitations, no self-deprecating wink, no admission that iOS Maps is an infant that needs to learn to crawl before walking, running, and ultimately lapping the frontrunner, Google Maps. Instead, we’re told that Apple’s Maps may be  “the most beautiful, powerful mapping service ever.

Mike Dobson (via Clark Goble):

My overall view of the companies that it (Apple) has assembled to create its application is that they are, as a whole, rated “C-grade” suppliers.

The whole post is excellent. I live near TomTom/Tele Atlas/GDT, and my impression has been that the acquisition has not been good for the (data) product and that good employees have left the company. I’m sure Apple will improve things with time, but maps are an area where it’s difficult to “walk right in.” So I appreciate that it’s a hard problem, but as Ian Betteridge says:

And that’s the thing: as an Apple customer and user, I don’t care about the issues behind the scenes. Maps is now a poorer experience than it was a few days ago, and I want Apple to fix it fast because that’s what I expect from them.

Update (2012-09-25): Bijan Sabet:

But it’s clear even before using Apple’s own Maps app in iOS 6. Google Maps on Android is vastly superior to Google Maps on iOS 5. It’s truly night and day. […] I think Apple had no choice but to create their own Maps apps. Just like the browser in age of the desktop, Maps is a critical app in the age of mobile.

Kontra also sees the analogy with Microsoft:

Sadly, this wasn’t an occasional inconvenience but a source of daily frustration for millions of paying customers, corporations and individuals alike. With business so dependent on Office, Microsoft’s message was loud and clear: if you want the real thing switch to Windows.

Emily Knapp:

Google won’t be coming to the rescue of iOS 6 users who miss its Maps service, at least not any time soon, according to executive chairman Eric Schmidt. His company has no intention to develop a dedicated app of its Maps service for iOS 6, Schmidt said at a Tokyo press event on Tuesday.

I think it would be negligent of Google not to have their own iOS Maps app ready to go, should they decide they want to ship it. So I assume Schmidt just doesn’t want to reveal it yet.

Update (2012-09-29): Chris Ziegler

Apple’s decision to ship its own mapping system in the iPhone 5 and iOS 6 was made over a year before the company’s agreement to use Google Maps expired, according to two independent sources familiar with the matter. The decision, made sometime before Apple’s WWDC event in June, sent Google scrambling to develop an iOS Google Maps app — an app which both sources say is still incomplete and currently not scheduled to ship for several months.

Tim Cook:

While we’re improving Maps, you can try alternatives by downloading map apps from the App Store like Bing, MapQuest and Waze, or use Google or Nokia maps by going to their websites and creating an icon on your home screen to their web app.

David Pogue:

In short, Maps is an appalling first release. It may be the most embarrassing, least usable piece of software Apple has ever unleashed.

John Gruber:

Whatever chance there was for Apple and Google to agree to a longer-term deal for iOS to continue using Google Maps, the effective deadline for Apple to make that decision was earlier this year, not next year when the existing deal expired.

Dan Lyons:

So this is the best Apple can do. They can’t try to pretend that their maps app isn’t a huge step backward. They can’t try to pretend that they aren’t putting their own squabble ahead of the needs of their customers. They can’t try to pretend that they’ve actually devoted sufficient resources to solving a very difficult problem.

David Pogue:

“It’s fair to say that in the mapping world, you can’t just throw money at it and then you have it the next day. This takes time,” Mr. Gupta said. “It took a lot of time to get where we’re at.” He said that even now, Google is far from done; error reports still flow in by the thousands.

Jason Matheson:

So Apple basically screwed over all iPhone users in Canada this time around. What’s troubling is that many of these towns don’t even appear on the map.

Nick Wingfield and Brian X. Chen:

But numerous interviews with former Apple employees in the wake of the maps controversy made it clear that Mr. Jobs and other executives rarely paid as much attention to Internet services as they did to the devices for which Apple is best known. Nor did they show the kind of consistent foresight in this area that has served the company so well in designing hardware and software.

Including a maps app on the first iPhone was not even part of the company’s original plan as the phone’s unveiling approached in January 2007. Just weeks before the event, Mr. Jobs ordered a mapping app to show off the capabilities of the touch-screen device.

John Gruber:

I thought it was obvious: this whole thing is entirely Apple’s fault. I don’t blame Google for withholding turn-by-turn, voice navigation, and vector map tiles from Apple. Google negotiated in their own interests. Nor do I blame Apple for breaking away. Like I wrote, the situation was untenable.

To me, there are three key points about the maps debacle:

  1. The user experience has been degraded for corporate/political reasons rather than technological ones.
  2. Mapping is hard, and Apple apparently did not realize how hard early enough, or presumably it would have brought more resources to bear or postponed this transition. (The alternative view is that it just doesn’t care so much about #1.)
  3. Apple likely didn’t know how bad its maps really were, even though this had been clear to iOS beta testers for months. If the plan all along had been to release the buggy maps and improve them through user feedback, Apple would have built a proper mechanism for collecting that feedback. Instead, there’s a primitive “Report a Problem” button (which doesn’t actually look like a button). If Apple indeed looks at that feedback, it will waste lots of manpower interpreting it. Both Google Maps and OpenStreetMap offer ways to provide more detailed feedback, which is also more amenable to automated processing.

All three of these point to potentially serious problems with the company that go beyond just shipping a bad app.

Update (2012-09-30): Digital Inspirations notes that Apple has scaled back its marketing claims about Maps.

Jean-Louis Gassée also has questions about how Apple let this happen, and get so out of hand:

In this case, it’s hard to believe the Maps team didn’t know about some of the most annoying warts. Did someone or some ones deliberately underplay known problems? Or did the team not know. And if so, why?

As I was saying on Twitter, I think Apple is in a bit of a bind here. This is not like the iPhone 4 antenna problem, where Apple can leverage a small number of smart people to engineer a fix in the next version. Rather, getting (and maintaining) good map data will require a sustained application of lots of manpower. This is not the sort of thing that Apple has historically been good at. For example, even after four years, Apple still doesn’t seem to have the proper staffing for the App Store review teams. The approval process is currently taking 8 days for iOS apps and 24 days for Mac apps.

Update (2012-10-04): Kontra:

A company in Apple’s current predicament could have followed a number of curative paths. It could have hired the equivalent of more than 7,000 mapping related personnel Google is said to employ to gather, analyze and correct data. However, for other than its retail stores, Apple has no history of hiring so many personnel (8% of its entire head count) for such a narrow operation.

Chris Foresman:

Google Maps is our top choice, considering its large and accurate data set, in addition to transit directions. Waze is a good turn-by-turn navigation app, and the extra traffic data could be especially useful in busy urban areas. These two apps are free, and should cover all your needs.

MacRumors:

Apple is piloting a program to tap into its vast number of retail store employees to help improve the company’s new Maps app for iOS 6. Details on the initiative remain unclear, but multiple sources have indicated that participating stores will dedicate 40 hours of staff time per week, distributed among a number of employees, to manually examine Apple’s mapping data in their areas and submit corrections and improvements.

Adam C. Engst:

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.

David Sparks:

My biggest gripe with the Maps app is driving at night. It displays the driving directions in the full screen with a brightly colored background. I use a window mount and the Maps app plays hell on my night vision. It feels like a safety hazard for me and I stopped using it when driving at night. I complained about this on a recent MPU episode and listener Mike wrote in with a great temporary fix.

Update (2012-12-10): Victoria Police News:

Tests on the mapping system by police confirm the mapping systems lists Mildura in the middle of the Murray Sunset National Park, approximately 70km away from the actual location of Mildura.

Police are extremely concerned as there is no water supply within the Park and temperatures can reach as high as 46 degrees, making this a potentially life threatening issue.

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6 Comments

The best part of the iOS maps app (and by "best", I mean "worst"), is that most of my bookmarks don't work anymore. Apparently, the old maps app stored the bookmarks as addresses, not as GPS coordinates, and the new maps app doesn't find these addresses anymore.

(And yes, the maps app on Android is fantastic, especially the caching of map data.)

Strike that. Up until about five minutes ago, only bookmarks I made in the US worked. For some strange reason, my remaining bookmarks are now starting to work as well. Very weird.

I'm not sure to understand why people are surprised by:

- the poor quality of 3D rendering when you're very near a bridge, building or group of trees. The problem exists in Google Earth for bridges or roads. With the technology used by Apple, it's not a big surprise this problem occurs. This technology is not good enough for close range. But the rendering will improve over time as the elevation data improves.

- the slowness of retrieving the tiles. It's been there since the first beta and the number of users was very low compared to what it will be. Apple needs to improve its data centers. They are already working on it so it will improve.

- the lack of accuracy of the metadata or data. Again, it's a problem that affects every single mapping solution. Not even to mention the discrepancy between the tiles and the coordinates which makes me scream each time I have to fixed some GPS coordinates based on what is visible on the map. This will improve over time. The only issue is that Apple needs to put in place a friendly system to report these inaccuracies. Bug Reporter is not the solution.

- the difference of colors between tiles. Again a problem that existed in Google Earth and maps for a long time. IIRC, it's only this year that Google added some color processing to makes tiles colors match each other. Apple needs to get more up-to-date data and not from different seasons. This is just a question of $$$. And Apple has plenty of it under its mattress. So this can be fixed over time.

- requirements to have the latest iPads and iPhones to get the 3D mode. It's just how they do things in Cupertino. But Google Earth works on the iPad 1 fine.

Yes, the first version of Apple's Apple Maps sucks from a data point of view and a performance point of view. But it can be fixed over time.

I'm with you on this. I will stick to iOS 5 on the devices I can as Maps is the application I use the most and not having StreetView on the iPad just is a showstopper.

Surprisingly I'm seeing improvements already - since I wrote the post you linked to. I think Apple's on this and the big egregious errors will be fixed quickly. I'm surprised eastern Europe satellite data is so poor. As I said in my area (Utah) the Apple sat data was actually better than the Google ones.

BTW - if you click on the controls (the flap in the lower right) there's a link "Report a problem" It's unfortunately in black text on a grey background so it's not as prominent as it should be. So you may have just overlooked it bob. I linked yesterday to the Tom Tom reporting which may actually get some data fixed quickly too.

I do agree with your comments Bob about projecting images on 3D topology near high change area. What are people expecting? 1" resolution on those maps? Kind of silly. Doubly so since, as you note, Google has the same problems. Ditto for Satellite tiles. (Something that was particularly bad with Google near my house since I'm on the border of a major tile with the other side being federal BLM land)

I can appreciate the dropping of the iPad 1 since it only had 256k RAM and a big screen. Remember it's not just whether Google Earth could work on it under iOS5. It's whether iOS6 as an OS could work. If iOS6 required more stuff to stay in memory and there was so little memory to work with I can understand them dropping it more quickly than some might like. That's one reason why buying a 1.0 release from Apple is problematic. Often they are just barely able to achieve the technology and price point. (One big reason why I didn't buy a retinal MacBookPro - and I think reports are bearing that out)

[...] Pickering). It doesn’t support directions, but it’s in some ways better than using Apple’s Maps app or Google Maps in Mobile [...]

[...] reason that I should update to iOS 6. In favor of iOS 5: lower cellular data usage, better Maps, better Contacts groups, better battery life, and a phone keypad that isn’t [...]

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