Apple’s maps

Apple's maps problem isn't about software or design. It's about data.

Apple Maps screenshotI promise not to make any snarky remarks about Apple’s maps disaster, and the mistakes of letting a corporate vendetta get in the way of good business decisions. Oops, I lied. But it’s good to see that Tim Cook agrees, at least about quality of the maps. It’s humbling for a company like Apple to issue an apology.

The real issue isn’t the apology, but what happens next. Google seems to be in no hurry to submit a maps app. It’s unclear how much patience Apple’s customers have; on my Android phone, I probably use Google Maps more than anything else. Not having public transit information when I’m in New York would be a deal breaker for me. I suspect Apple’s fans are more loyal, but even that has limits. How long can the fanboys wait?

One article put Apple’s mapping efforts 400 years behind Google. That’s a lot of catch up. And Google certainly isn’t standing still: their addition of underwater photography to “street view” is spectacular, and may serve us well when sea levels rise. But that’s not the point, either. Apple doesn’t have to “catch up” to Google, though I’m sure they’d like to. They just have to get a product that’s good enough. I don’t think that’s a three-to-six-month proposition. But it could be done in a year or two.

Here’s the difficulty. As Stephen O’Grady has pointed out, the problem with maps is really a data problem, not a software or design problem. If Apple’s maps app was ugly or had a poor user interface, it would be fixed within a month. But Apple is really looking at a data problem: bad data, incomplete data, conflicting data, poor quality data, incorrectly formatted data. Anyone who works with data understands that 80% of the work in any data product is getting your data into good enough shape so that it’s useable. Google is a data company, and they understand this; hence the reports of more than 7,000 people working on Google Maps. And even Google Maps has its errors; I just reported a “road” that is really just a poorly maintained trail.

Maps isn’t Apple’s only data problem. Apple’s spelling correction is an embarrassment. Google has this nailed, both from the standpoint of accuracy and user interface, even to the point of auto-suggesting the next word (with uncanny accuracy). When I’m typing on my Android phone, I don’t even bother correcting mistakes: I can trust Google to pop up the correct word, often before I’ve finished. On my iPad, it’s another story. As Google’s Peter Norvig has said, “We don’t have better algorithms. We just have more data.

Again, I really don’t mean to be snarky about Apple, so I’ll stop here. Apple has been successful by being a great product company. But to move forward, they have to become a great data company. Likewise, to succeed at offering services (including map services), they have to become a great operations company. It isn’t just about product design. I have no doubts that Apple is capable of making the shift; if they do so, the year or two it takes them to get a map product that’s “good enough” will be well spent. But if they don’t make this shift, they could be in for a rough time.

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  • Tom Twomey

    Apple Maps has not let me down. It gives me fast perfect turn-by-turn-verbal directions. I suppose some other features like traffic reports and exact locations of a business need improvement (It took google three years to properly locate my business after a dozen requests). But for the main reason that I use Maps, it is a great application.

  • http://twitter.com/callumacrae Callum Macrae

    Hasn’t really let me down, either. A village I go through often isn’t named (but it is there; it just means that it isn’t searchable), but that is the only problem I have found except for rendering errors in 3D mode.

    I’m not entirely sure that it is as much of a data problem as you make out in this article. After all, the data is supplied by TomTom[1], and they don’t have a problem with their apps and standalone navigation systems. I don’t think that the problems will take anyway near a “year or two” to correct.

    Again with spelling correction, I haven’t had a problem with it. When I get a new iDevice (not that that happens often), it takes a few days to get used to my typing, but after that it correctly corrects me nearly 100% of the time.

    [1]: http://www.engadget.com/2012/06/11/apple-tomtom-ios-6-maps/

  • AdamChew

    Can’t help but notice the glee and the gloating of a goog fan-atic hoping that Apple Maps will fail and quoting people who knows notihing of how Apple works that Apple wouldn’t be able to fix their Maps.

    Isn’t it funny that all the pundits know best how Apple can’t fix their Maps because they don’t have the man power.

    Another funny thing is all the pundits did not realize is the partners are fixing the bad data of the Maps which belong to them.

  • Dan

    Works fine for me, I think its antennagate all over again. Small issues blow out of proportion by news agencies. Yea I have seen some things where the pin is in the wrong spot and satellite images where bridges are its laying on the ground etc. But I see just as much on Google Maps so not sure why everything is being blown up about it. Because its Apple or what?

  • http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=krNRcYWBuFc Peter Russo

    With me, I have nothing against Apple’s map. So far it gave me useful data of places, the same with Google maps.

  • http://twitter.com/lklemme Laura Klemme

    This is exactly why I won’t upgrade my iPhone 4. In fact, I am thinking seriously about moving to Samsung since most of the useful apps that I use are Google-based. Maps are critical.

  • Rohit5

    This is ironical, what I heard that main reason Apple drops Google Map because Google denied Apple’s claim on data gathered from IPhone and IPads which is critical for advertising. Apple’s map is a cloud based device and it will get better when more people will start using it. Java

    • Hans

      Why should I use it in the bad shape it currently is?

  • Dave Neary

    OSM seems like the obvious answer here – at least for maps. Aerial imaging, voice navigation, etc are all much harder questions. Yes, mapping is a data problem, and OSM has the data. What is stopping Apple from fully engaging in this open and worthy project?

  • mikhailovitch

    No major navigation problems for me, so far. No turn by turn yet here in Australia, Apple said it wasn’t quite ready in time for the launch. I really miss Streetview, and a lot of the incidental data (restaurants, businesses etc) is years out of date, and occasionally wildly out of position – I have a bowling club from 250 km away at the end of my street! On my experience, I really doubt that it will take them longer than a year to get it in pretty good shape – the basics all seem to be there, and there are some very nice things about the way that it is shaped.

  • tungwaiyip

    That’s why even I’m not a Apple fan boy and I use an Android phone, I don’t want to see Apple struggle there. I want to see a viable alternative GIS database to Google Map, especially an open source one. Right now Google’s data is just way better than others. OSM is just not nearly as good as Google Map. Even in an area like San Francisco where there are a lot of volunteer editor (I’ve make a few contributions myself), OSM is still behind Google.

  • http://www.amadore.nl/ Zeeland

    I think the fault is by Tomtom and Apple. Apple released the app too early and TomTom provided the Maps application with bad data.

  • http://www.facebook.com/eric.frost.79 Eric Frost

    I kind of doubt TomTom’s data is that bad, where I’ve seen the most issues from my experience with digital mapping is when the digital cartographers try to merge multiple data sources leading to inconsistencies. They try to be smart and make the map richer by including extra layers. In any case, Apple’s mapping app is not the only one with problems, I took this screenshot from Bing Maps iOS 6 app yesterday —
    http://www.mapforums.com/map-accuracy-bing-maps-app-mappoint-19606.html