Oops! Apple Needs a Remapping [Updated]

by Steve Wildstrom   |   September 20th, 2012

When I looked at the area around my house in the new iOS 6 Apple Maps app, I noticed something seemed to be missing. There was a big pink patch for the Bethesda naval hospital, but where was the very unmissable campus of the National Institutes of Health, located just across the street. Nowhere to be found. A closer examination of the neighborhood showed a county office building mislabeled as a school, while the actual school, a couple of miles away, was missing. A local high school is shown in two different places. A major road was misnamed and  the name of an Army facility was misspelled. This just in one small part of one Washington suburb.

There has been a fair amount of early grumbling about the features,  such as street view and mass transit routing,  lost when Apple switched from Google maps to their own in iOS 6. But I was unprepared for just how bad the maps themselves are.

The thing I associate most strongly with Apple is the extremely high standard for the fit and finish of its products. While the iPhone 6 may look and feel like a fine Swiss watch, Maps looks like a hurriedly thrown together term paper.

Relations between Apple and Google have been deteriorating for some time and the tensions have heightened lately. So it’s not surprising that Apple felt compelled to rid itself of its dependence on Google for such a critical service. Nokia is the second0-best source of mapping data, but Nokia is very tight with Microsoft these days and Apple apparently couldn’t, or didn’t want, to go there. Apple turned to Tom Tom, with additional data from crowdsourced maps and navigation service Waze and others. The result is a big step down in quality.

Fortunately for Apple, maps are maintained on servers, not devices, so improvements can be made quickly and out into effect instantly. It’s somewhat un-Apple-like, but the company ought to quickly establish a system for user reports of map errors, a system that worked very well for Google when it began offering bicycle routing a couple of years ago.

I haven’t yet had a chance to test Apple’s new turn-by-turn navigation. But the fact the database doesn’t know where a lot of things are makes me wary (It relies heavily on Yelp for search; that’s great for restaurants, but not so helpful for government offices.) For now, I’d stick to searching for destinations by address, not by name.

UPDATE: TechCrunch has a post on errors in Apple’s European maps. Sounds like things are a mess on that side of the Atlantic too.

SECOND UPDATE: Jonathan Cartagena (@torah7000) reports via Twitter that there is a link to report problems, though being in dark text on a medium gray linen background, it’s not easy to spot. I tried reporting problems with mixed results. I couldn’t report the fact that NIH was missing because reporting a missing feature requires tapping the feature on the map, which you can’t do if it isn’t there. Just tapping the correct location doesn’t work. Other corrections can be entered by typing in a text box, but the text does not wrap properly at the end of a line but just scrolls off to the left. Still others show a satellite image of the problem area and ask you to drag the pin to the correct location. However when you try to do this, the whole map scrolls with the pin in place. The whole procedure feels a lot less than half baked.

Steve Wildstrom

Steve Wildstrom is veteran technology reporter, writer, and analyst based in the Washington, D.C. area. He created and wrote BusinessWeek’s Technology & You column for 15 years. Since leaving BusinessWeek in the fall of 2009, he has written his own blog, Wildstrom on Tech and has contributed to corporate blogs, including those of Cisco and AMD and also consults for major technology companies.
  • jfutral

    I am wondering about their choice for map data. I seem to recall there really aren’t that many companies that are first source providers. I guess Tomtom is a consolidator of sorts. But even then, it seems like there are better choices. Maybe everyone has already partnered up (like Navteq) and options were limited. Although I thought Tele Atlas was no slouch. And yet here we are.

    Joe

    • steve_wildstrom

      Tom Tom bought Tele Atlas in 2007 at the same time that Nokia bought Navteq. That’s pretty much it for combo map and geolocation databases.

      • jfutral

        Wow. OK. That’s how long it’s been since I’ve been out of the loop. I didn’t realize Tomtom _bought_ Tele Atlas.

        I wonder what DeLorme is doing these days? Although they were already transitioning out of digital street maps and focusing on topo maps when I was last in that area.

        Joe

    • AdamChew

      One question who knows your hometown better than you and even the taxi driver wouldn’t know all the shortcuts.

      It takes time to perfect the details.
      I am sure the OSX cheetah was not perfect out of the gate.

      Anyway someone will be paying dearly for all the problems and I have one in mind TomTom.

  • jfutral

    Now here is a tidbit I bet most people won’t know. You can’t actually copyright accurate maps. Or rather it is impossible to enforce. Most every company that I am aware of will deliberately keep something particular inaccurate. That is the only way to tell if someone might be copying your maps.

    Or maybe this is old news. Shows how old I am.

    Joe

    • steve_wildstrom

      Yes, I’ve heard of this sort of “salting.” But I found half a dozen errors within a mile radius of my home. That’s just major sloppiness.

      • jfutral

        Sure. But I bet no one will copy that map! :-)

        Joe

  • FalKirk

    “the company ought to quickly establish a system for user reports of map errors”

    I believe Apple has such a reporting system in place. It can be found when one “turns the page” back on their map. How well it works is another matter altogether.

    Apple has really done some uncharacteristic things lately. (No, I don’t think it has anything to do with the death of Steve Jobs. Read on.) Apple has put Siri out in beta and they’ve put maps out before they’re even close to being the best. Both of these services require crowd sourced data in order to improve. Apple is caught in a trap. The only way to improve these services is to have them operational. But that means that they have to make these services operational before they’re ready for prime time. Very un-Apple-like.

    This is a big moment for Apple. Let’s see if they can adjust and rapidly improve these services. If not, they – and all of their customers – are going to pay a dreadful price.

    • jfutral

      Yeah, with something like this, one may have to play catch up, but the only way to catch up is to actually start running.

      Joe

  • mobile sarcast

    My ‘droid is just sittin under a tree-eating an apple…
    Goid thing nobody relies on their tech for anything important…

  • Rich

    I’m guessing that the inaccuracy of Apple’s maps is caused by Apple not sending their own vehicles out to drive the streets the way Google did. Is that true?

    • steve_wildstrom

      I think they rely on Tele Atlas and Waze’s crowdsourcing. This is an anecdote, not data, but while I have seen both Google and Navteq (Nokia) cars in my area, I’ve never seen one from Tele Atlas.

      • http://www.facebook.com/THExREALxTACO Jeremy Taco Patterson

        Waze is a very fun spin on your plain-vanilla GPS app, but it seems hardly “professional” enough, or taken seriously enough as a legitimate GPS database to be used by a company so widely known for quality like Apple.

        Where is Garmin in all of this?

  • jfutral

    I’m also curious, in the big scheme of things, how bad is Apple’s Maps? That there are issues is not an argument. But how many errors are residing, unmentioned, in Google Maps? I remember back in the day (and I am old enough to use that phrase), when it was the big three—Yahoo Maps, Google Maps, and Map Quest (whose turn by turn maps are still free in the App Store)—web based, not mobile based. I never really griped about errors, I would just switch to the other map.

    Not that I know how to quantify this, but how much is this being blown out of proportion because this is Apple and how much of this is really Apple’s Maps being quantitatively worse than the other companies?

    Not that this is any excuse, but I would love to see this put into proper perspective.

    Joe

    • steve_wildstrom

      All map databases have errors. At least in my next of the woods, Apple’s are significantly worse than Google’s. More serious are routing problems. Non-serious database error: The map of Dulles Airport is several years out of date and fails to show runway 1L-19R. Serious routing error: The route from my home to the airport takes you around the Beltway past the Dulles Access Road, which is so named for a reason, to a drive of about 12 miles on U.S. Route 50, a congested surface road, before putting you on a nonexistent road that would require you to jump the airport fence and cross runway 12-30.

      Search is also a mess. Staying with my airport theme, if you search for “Dulles Airport,” the first result that comes up is something called Dulles Airport Taxi in downtown Washington. If you’re not paying close attention, that’s where the program will route you.

      I don’t think maps has anything in particular against Dulles. If it contains errors of this magnitude regarding a major destination in a major city, I find it hard to trust the rest of it right now.

  • alexkhan2000

    All this Maps hoopla does make me wonder: should Apple have given this one more year (iOS7?) when they still had one year left with Google? Turn-by-turn voice-guided navigation is certainly a welcome feature for someone like me who lives in Southern California but I had been using the Garmin app for that feature anyway. I suspect many others who really needed the turn-by-turn were also using similar apps from a variety of third-party vendors.

    It’s hard to get a good read of this situation. From a recent NYT article, it was stated that over 99% of the map data on the new Apple Maps is correct. But when we consider that over 100 million people have already upgraded to iOS6, even 0.5% means 500,000 people are finding a lot of things wrong with it in their vicinity. So is this a case of things being blown out of proportion or is it a fundamental problem that Apple has overlooked and hastily put out there to spite Google?

    I’ve been testing the new Maps in my neck of the woods somewhere in between LA and San Diego and really haven’t run into any glaring issues. Overall, I prefer it over the Google version (although it doesn’t seem as complete) and the turn-by-turn navigation feature has been at least as good as the Garmin’s. In certain respects, the new Maps seems smoother and the 3D flyover looks really cool although its real-world usefulness seems a bit questionable.

    I guess my main question is: why did Apple feel compelled to release the new Maps when they still had one year left in the agreement with Google? Another year would have been very useful for Apple to make the app more accurate and thorough. Apple could have released it along with the Google version as a “beta” but I guess having two versions of what is essentially the same app would have been confusing.

    Did Apple feel like they were painted into a corner with the terms that Google was asking? How really important is the turn-by-turn navigation feature when it didn’t seem like most Apple customers were asking for it? I didn’t bother to ask. I looked over all the options (Garmin, Tomtom, Navigon, etc.) and went with Garmin because I was already familiar with Garmin’s dedicated Nuvi GPS device.

    It does seem that Apple can’t be as nimble and aggressive as they used to be because of the sheer volume of installed base they have to support. And when they try with new untested features like Siri and the new Maps, they’re not fully baked and it creates a PR firestorm because Apple is the main target of its competitors, the press that takes glee in pointing out anything Apple doesn’t do right and the army of haters populating the Internet. Perhaps this is indeed a case of Apple running up against the law of large numbers?

    • steve_wildstrom

      If John Gruber’s timeline is correct, Apple really didin’t have a year. He says the license actually expired next spring, so Apple would have had to do the map change between major OS revisions. Still, that might have been the better move if they could have improved the product significantly in the next few months.

      • stevekellman

        Kudos for replying to a recent comment on a week-old article!