iPhone 5, iOS 6: Is Apple Maps the new Ping?

The first attempts are always the most dangerous. Any time you take a new path you’ll find critics to pull you down: sometimes you’ve only got your instincts as a guide, and, for a little while at least, that looks like what you’ll have to rely on when using Apple [AAPLMaps on iOS 6 on your iPhone, with critics already lampooning the company’s attempt to replace Google’s mapping services.


Getting the map party started

To be fair, this is only the beginning, but while Google’s spent years finessing its mapping services, Apple’s new offering has only just become public. 

Apple believes that they can deliver a better experience for customers than Google,” Sarah Rotman Epps, an analyst at Forrester Research told BusinessWeek. “But in the short term, Google has a better mapping application, and iPhone customers will suffer.”

Because it's a first attempt and Apple is the leading smartphone brand, people have been diving into those maps to find out if they’re any good. For street information, they seem OK, but satellite images and a few glaring errors in the data used by the service have generated ridicule.

-- Dublin now has an extra airfield, situated in the sleepy suburb of Dundrum. A 35-acre site on the outside of the city is called ‘Airfield’ which has led Apple Maps to designate it as such with its own Airport logo. In fact it’s home to a city farm and cafe.

-- Coolsmartphone’s taken a good long look at Apple maps, finding a variety of problems within the company’s available bank of satellite images of some locations. Some images are grainy, others relatively old. Though when they work, they work well -- there’s hope in future.

-- Search for London and the first place that appears isn’t London, UK, but London in Ontario, Canada, The Guardian informs.

Naturally Apple users have been putting the all-new Maps feature through its paces. This has generated several threads on Apple’s own support forums. Here’s a good one.

Typical reactions from those critical of Apple’s Google-replacement-service are varied, and while most critics aren’t in the US (which suggests the service there is adequate at least) those outside of the continent don’t seem satisfied, thus far.

Maps a huge bust!! Apple what have you done!!!!” writes ‘bamfrmcan’ on the forums. “Perhaps for the few areas of the globe that can benefit from "Flyover" the new Apple Maps app is a hit, however, for the rest of the world, at least in Canada, it is nothing short of atrocious.”

There’s plenty of criticisms, including incorrect or wrongly-positioned place names; inaccurate local information or no information at all, and more.

A public beta

Apple is clearly aware of this. That must be why the app has a built-in system for reporting errors so users can file problem reports -- Google Maps has benefitted from such user input for years.

It’s important to note that Apple doesn’t need to issue a software update to repair problems as they are fixed, as data is hosted off the device. 

Critics will observe that Apple’s own marketing promises a truly effective service. “Apple-designed from the ground up (and the sky down), the built-in app shows you incredible detail - even on full zoom. Maps keeps street names where they belong and keeps you heading in the right direction with spoken turn-by-turn navigation and real-time traffic updates.

The company also has the option to purchase map data and satellite imagery from existing third party suppliers, meld it into its system and automatically make better data available to users. Much of the data used in its existing software comes from mapping company, TomTom and OpenStreetMap.

If you really dislike Apple’s mapping service there’s a few options available to you:

  • Access Google Maps through Safari;
  • Use Google Earth to access detailed maps for certain areas;
  • Use Microsoft’s Bing app, which has a map section of its own though this is once again not as good as Google’s data;
  • In future, it seems likely Google will submit a Google Maps app to the App Store -- it is to be hoped Apple approves this app, though given the relationship between the two firms there’s a chance that it won’t, leading to yet another deluge of criticism for the company.

Improve things fast

Historically, the introduction of Maps isn’t the first time Apple’s released a product which arguably isn’t quite ready. Many felt the first ever full release of Mac OS X carried so many flaws it was effectively a public beta test. Others note that Siri was perhaps not the be all and end all to voice recognition they had expected (though I believe it will be). 

The criticisms are one thing: another is the praise. Where these maps work they’re winning plaudits; Flyover is seen as a beautiful feature (and you can watch this space for more improvements there) and the turn by turn driving instructions are great, when they don’t drive you into an unmapped wall...

The shiny new features aren’t enough to detract from a perception that Apple Maps appears to be beta software, at least it does at the moment. This doesn’t make it a mistake for the company to have released it -- every journey begins with a single step, after all -- but now it’s essential it is seen to be actively improving its new service. 

This is because iPhone users have grown reliant upon Google Maps. I think most users understand the competitive forces between the two companies that has driven Apple’s decision to kick Google out, but that understanding won’t extend to being forced to use an inferior service, at least not for long.

Philosophically, being open about its need to improve its maps app will require a shift in thinking by the company. You need people to believe in a map and at present this “feature” is a weakness in the Apple armory. 

However, being open in such a way is something that’s difficult for the world’s most secretive company -- and while it’s focus on user experiences is legendary, it is perhaps telling that one thing the app does display prominently is the location of Apple retail stores, which are very prominent in their display on any city in which they appear.

I believe Apple has only limited time in which to improve its mapping services. 

UPDATE: In a statement provided to All Things D today, an Apple representative said: "Customers around the world are upgrading to iOS 6 with over 200 new features including Apple Maps, our first map service. We are excited to offer this service with innovative new features like Flyover, turn by turn navigation, and Siri integration. We launched this new map service knowing it is a major initiative and that we are just getting started with it. Maps is a cloud-based solution and the more people use it, the better it will get. We appreciate all of the customer feedback and are working hard to make the customer experience even better."

Clearly the company intends improving its solution over time -- but time is limited...

Consumers will only need one or two late appointments, a couple of disappointments in their use of this new service before they migrate to other apps, services, and, possibly, platforms.

Apple does not want Maps to become its new Ping.

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Copyright © 2012 IDG Communications, Inc.

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