Thursday, October 4, 2012

Apple Maps—Is It Really That Bad?

It seems the target du-jour of late is the Maps program in Apple’s newest release of iOS. Blogs, news articles, forum threads, and social sites seemed to light up with malicious glee over how bad Apple’s Maps was compared to Google Maps, the program Apple replaced. The negative reviews began right out of the gate with the release of iOS6.
I was excited to see iOS 6 come out. After all the hype, I was looking forward to seeing how Apple was going to out-Google Google Maps. Then I began reading about the criticisms people had for the program, which certainly had an effect on my expectations. When I finally loaded iOS 6 onto my iPhone 3Gs, I must admit I was fairly disappointed with what I found in the offering from Apple.
The hype about the technology Apple employed for their Maps program had me excited to see it in action. Pundits comment endlessly how Apple is a company that has an excellent practice at maintaining its secrets. My opinion is that Apple keeping secrets is a distant second to their other marketing talent of generating hype for new products to be released. In this case, the hype really set Apple up to disappoint their customers.
When Apple released the iPhone 4S, everyone knew this was just to tide them over until the release of the iPhone 5. Back in the spring, Apple warned investors that they expected sales of iPhones to dry up. Over the summer, market analysts noted that sales of smart phones in general were dropping in anticipation of the release of the iPhone 5.
The bigger they are, the harder they fall and expectations for the iPhone 5 were huge. Love or hate Apple, one cannot deny they put out excellent, high quality products. So the slightest flaw is something that almost everyone will pounce upon.
The flaw in iOS 6 is Apple Maps.
The backlash was enormous! People were saying they couldn’t find various locations (such as restaurants nearby) when they did a search. Some government officials in the UK complained that it was showing an airport where there was none. (More about this in a couple of paragraphs.) Compared to Google Maps, everyone complained it fell way short.
Considering that Google Maps was arguably the most heavily used application in iOS, Apple Maps had to really perform.
Everyone is used to Apple hitting it out of the ballpark whenever they release something new. We are used to seeing Apple create a product that outdoes what a competitor’s product had been doing for years (iPod and then the iPhone). So much so, many people don’t recall just how often Apple doesn’t get it out of the infield, or even strikes out.
So when Apple’s Maps program failed to out-Google Google’s Maps program, everyone jumped on the wagon and declared it a spectacular failure. So loud was the din from the public, that Tim Cook, CEO of Apple, even issued an apology for Apple Maps falling short of expectations.
Is Apple Maps really that bad?
Let’s look at the errors.
The fantasy airport reported?
Over the summer, a good two months before Apple released iOS 6 with their Maps program, I found Google Maps listing an airport where there was none. A few months prior to that, I found an airport that was listed as a public restroom. I found a primary road in Springfield, Massachusetts that had the wrong name applied to it. Roads that didn’t exist. In back rural roads in Vermont, there are a few places where the map data doesn’t line up with the path the actual road follows in the satellite imagery.
In each of these cases, I filed an error report with Google and the errors were reviewed and fixed in fairly short order.
Is Apple Maps reporting improper locations so shocking? Not in the least! I have found a few errors in Apple Maps by looking at locations near where I live. I merely dropped on pin [in the program] on the location and reported it as a problem.
Functionally, Apple Maps works fine. A couple short drives showed that it was doing its job in directing me to where I was going. I used Google Maps heavily when driving cross-country and I don’t expect to be led astray by Apple’s offering. Routing information in both programs produce the same result.
The turn-by-turn navigation mode impressed me. When I deviated from the course suggested by Maps, it adjusted the new course almost instantly. It was already offering a suggested route change even before I had finished the turn onto the new road and it wasn’t trying to steer me back to the original course like some other GPS navigation devices would do.
After playing with Apple Maps for the past couple weeks, I can say with certainty that it works just fine.
I will say that Apple Maps is not as matured as Google Maps. Let’s face it, Google has been working at this for well over seven years now. Apple? Just a couple of months. Google has rolled many excellent features into their mapping product. The ability to do a search for a given business in the map? Data search is Google’s core competency. I don’t see Apple beating Google in that arena anytime soon. Other companies have tried and failed miserably.
About two years ago, Google began a program encouraging users to enter extra data into their map database and to report any inaccuracies. I have sent in many such reports and found them to be corrected within a month or so. This is the sort of activity that Apple must encourage of their users. This is what will greatly flesh out their offerings in the maps. Yeah, I’ve found a few errors in location positions in Apple’s Maps program and I’ve sent in bug reports about them. As I said above, I find errors in Google Maps as well.
My biggest complaint about Apple Maps (and Apple’s earlier implementation of Google Maps, too)? The blue dot that shows your current position on the map is the same blue color as the line that shows your route information. When driving, I cannot differentiate between the two with a quick glance. It requires a longer look, which takes my attention off the road. Wake up call to Apple: the human eye needs CONTRAST to work optimally! Change the color of one or the other!
Now, complaints aside, the technophile (aka “geek”) in me can see the foundations of future greatness that Apple has created with their Maps program. The key feature being that the program uses vector information to construct the maps, where Google uses image tiles to construct their maps.
On an old and very well worn 3Gs, the Apple vector maps load much faster than the Google JPEG map tiles. The Apple Maps program can load vastly more map data that Google can in the same amount of available memory. When driving around a region where cellphone coverage may be spotty, this is important. There are several places I drive through where signal is lost, and my Google map was reduced to a blue dot floating on an empty grid. I look forward to when I can put Apple’s map to the test and see if it properly preloads enough map data to carry me through these zones.
I think the primary flaw in Apple Maps is that people expected far more from Apple than was delivered. Think of it as getting a glass of 12-year-old scotch instead of a glass of 25-year-old scotch. Both may be excellent distillations, but one is certainly better than the other. Apple Maps functions excellently now. It just lacks the extra smoothness and polish of its counterpart, Google Maps. It also has a number of flaws in its locations data. Ultimately, these errors will be vetted out and fixed.
Considering the underlying technologies Apple has used as the foundation for their map program, given time I think it is safe to expect it will mature into an outstanding tool. For now, consumers will have to accept that Apple is a few years behind the competition in this arena. If history is any indication, Apple might eventually turn Maps into a product that sets the standard rather than following it.