Apple Maps: Still a Disaster

Steve Wildstrom / September 20th, 2013

I was hoping that with the official release of iOS 7, Apple would finally produce some major improvements in Apple Maps. But for all the attention Apple has lavished on other parts of the new OS, Apple seems to have given Maps the Find My Friends treatment. It looks like an iOS 7 apps, but that seems to be about it.

apple-maps-wjhs

The worst problems continue to be in the map database. I know that in some places, such as the San Francisco Bay area, the maps are pretty good. But in my neck of the woods, they stink.

Consider the image to the left. A search for a Bethesda, MD, high school found it at its correct location, more or less. But look to the right, across Old Georgetown Road. There’s another Walter Johnson High School that is a permanent feature. And wrong.

In fact, there are at least three other errors in this one little panel. That street south of Democracy Boulevard is Bells Mill Road, not BeVs Mill.  The Giant Food is on the wrong side of Rock Spring Drive. It should be next to the Chipotle, where both are part of an otherwise missing shopping center.

In fact, just about every map screen I look at in my neighborhood has a mistake of some sort. A nonexistent school shows up a few blocks from my home, several miles from the school’s actual location. The National Institutes of Health Bethesda main campus, not exactly a minor landmark, is not indicated on the map. (I reported both of these errors to Apple a year ago.) The Walter Reed National Military Medical Center is shown as the national Naval Medical Center, a name dropped two years ago, and the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences and Howard Hughes Medical Institute are missing.

Apple has still not done what is needed to improve the shortcomings of the apps itself. There are still no public transit directions, one of the more useful features of Google Maps. Switching between driving and walking instructions remains awkward.

At least the driving directions from my home to Dulles Airport no longer terminate at the side of a highway next to a security fence, as they did originally. But the instructions come with a curious warning that the route requires tolls. It does’;t and the app ought to know it, since it correctly routes me onto the free Dulles Access Highway rather than the parallel Dulles Toll Road.

Fortunately, for the past several months, we have had an excellent version of Google Maps for the iPhone, so I rarely use Apple’s offering. But if Apple wants to be a serious player in this important part of the mobile business, it will have to do better–eventually.

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.
  • FSRA

    The Bells Mill Rd seems to be spelled correctly, the L’s are just tilted to follow the curve of the road, anyway, it should look better.
    In my case (I live in Brasilia – Brazil) the Maps received a nice data improvement. A year ago, most of the names of the streets across the city were wrong, some neighborhood names appearing in the wrong place, and now everything is pretty much correct. It’s nice to see they are correcting all kinds of places, even before than correcting the region near Washington.
    I guess we just have to give it some time, unfortunately.

  • Red

    Maybe Apple is concentrating on areas where Google Maps is weakest? In the UK I’ve seen lots of Google Map errors where Apple Maps is right. The only real choice is to use them all and test them all, including Nokia HERE maps.

    • Dave MacLachlan

      Examples?

      • steve_wildstrom

        Thanks. As for Shannon, how many masters theses are still read because they are still relevant 80 years after submission. And reading declassified wartime work makes its clear that Shannon’s mathematical theory of communications was substantively finished at least five years before it was published.

        • Dave MacLachlan

          Steve, not sure mine was the post you were looking for… 🙂

          • steve_wildstrom

            You’re right. I replied to the wrong comment.

  • TheEternalEmperor

    Well, it works for me. Has from the beginning. And take no offense from this, but I would have expected a better headline from TechPinions.

    • JeanLucLabarre

      When this article came out I sent Apple numerous corrections using Report a Problem.
      Care to guess how many have been fixed? Not even one.

      I don’t honestly know why I bothered. How can a $150b corporation be this rubbish.?.?
      Oh, btw, I also sent Google some corrections too. All of those errors are now corrected.
      Yes, Apple’s Maps IS STILL a disaster.

  • 1100101

    Yes, I agree this is a not-useful headline. The sort of headline one would expect from some websites, but not here. You can do better.

    Also, for me, Maps has always been fine, everywhere I have tried it. I am in the US, Texas. No problems. Which is surprising, there is a lot here and I’m sure there are higher usage areas. But mapping is not a destination, it is a quest. And I think all maps, online and offline, have errors.

  • Oransky

    Steve, I don’t, nor have I seen issues either here in Tampa or elsewhere that indicates Maps is a ‘disaster’. That’s a big word. As to your last point, what do you think: does Apple want to be a serious player in this part of the mobile business? I’m guessing your answer is yes, as is mine. They’ll get there.

    • steve_wildstrom

      I don;t know. I would think that if Apple were really serious, they would have made more progress in the past year, both on map quality and on app features. It’s not clear to me that after they hung Maps around Scott Forstall’s neck that anyone else has really taken charge of the effort.

      I found it interesting, though I forgot to mention it in the post, that Maps was not mentioned during the recent iPhone announcement.

      • Oransky

        From what I’ve read, mapping is a huge job and apparently not something that can be buttoned up in a year. I did see where they’ve recently tried to hire a ton of local mapping ‘experts’ in various markets, they have bought some transit and other specialty companies recently – which would indicate mapping is a work in progress and will get better. For now I might characterize it as good enough – but not a disaster.

      • TheEternalEmperor

        What would you have them say? Accuracy isn’t a feature.

      • Akron

        Apple aren’t seriouse because of you! The word is solipsistic. Meanwhile since I’ve had no problems with Apple maps in London and Eastern Spain, I can assume that they have maped the entire world to near perfection because, well me!

        Ok, maybe I shouldn’t judge the quality of a global map program based solely on my own limited use but I can’t shake this feeling that doing otherwise is unreasonable.

      • Space Gorilla

        I can’t take you seriously if you’re implying Apple isn’t working on Maps.

      • Herding_sheep

        Yes, because it’s totally rational to expect Apple can just flip a switch and POOF all the issues disappear.

        Apple did talk about Maps at WWDC, which is a more appropriate place to talk about it. And they said “the maps team has been working very hard to improve the data.”

        I’d say calling maps a “disaster” because a school was mislocated is a little bit sensationalist. Maps has certainly seen some extensive improvements for many areas around the world. Maybe not YOUR area, but to think for one minute that the Maps team isn’t hard at work because of a few minor location errors in your area is a bit self-important. I’m pretty sure mapping the ENTIRE globe is no small feat, and there are many areas around the world that might be more important for them to address than a single school in MDs mislocation

        • isitjustme

          Perhaps to him any mistake Apple make is a disaster.

  • Mark Jones

    I’ve used Apple Maps to drive up and down the US East Coast (Maine to Florida) or portions thereof often and have had a good experience with directions and traffic. From my experience, its weakness has always been in locating entities (businesses, schools, hospitals, etc). But I’ve also had troubles with Google Maps as well – gas stations being up to 2 miles away from where they really were.

    • TheEternalEmperor

      A disaster!

      • JeanLucLabarre

        The difference, when you report errors to Google, they actually fix it.
        Go ahead. Try it.
        Find an mistake common to both maps, and report them to Google and to Apple…..

  • tz

    I would say my biggest complaint about Apple maps is that they have located several restaurants in my neighborhood. Those restaurants are actually about 5 miles away. And what really annoys me is that they have a provision in the software to report the problem. I thought crowdsourcing was something they were going to partake in. Apparently not because I have reported the problem multiple times since maps came out and there is still supposedly A&W the end of my street, and a McDonald’s near the neighborhood volunteer fire department.
    🙁
    That said I have learned to distrust all map services, they all have inaccuracies. When I choose to use online mapping services , I will check several different ones and reach my own conclusion.

  • Idon’t Know

    I’ve used it extensively with no issues.

  • Mauryan

    Maps is a knee jerk reaction from Apple to show its anger at Google for the success of its Android. Apple has to realize the Google is going to the company of the future where innovation and creativity are going to find their strengths. Apple did this when Microsoft was ruling the earth. But Google has arrived. It is better to work with Google than against it. Both are creative companies where they take immense effort to make the user experience simple. I was thrilled when the first iPhone came out. Both Apple and Google worked together at that time. I’d love to see them again work together. In fact I’d love to see Apple, Google and a new MicroSoft (post Ballmer) to work together, compete and be interdependent at the same time. We consumers will get the best benefit out of it. In fact I’d like them to tear up the Cable company monopoly.

    • TheEternalEmperor

      No. It isn’t a knee jerk reaction.

    • tz

      Here is an alternate story line. Google was denying Apple a fully featured maps app. Apple responded with their own app and locked Google out of the pre-installed software on iOS.
      Only then did Google come around and provide a better Google maps experience for iOS.

    • steve_wildstrom

      No, Maps was a reaction to a specific dispute with Google: Google’s unwillingness to provide turn-by-turn navigation for iOS on terms Apple was willing to accept.

      • Joe_Winfield_IL

        Ultimately, it’s a win-win except for the fact that Google Maps can’t be integrated with Siri. Users get a far superior mapping service, Apple gets to relegate Google’s offering a bit, and Google gets to skim much more user data than Apple would have allowed on the old Apple-branded, Google-backed version.

      • Hosni

        Any other business venture is evaluated by comparing its costs and revenues, but in this instance neither costs nor revenues was even mentioned before pronouncing it a “disaster.”

        Longer term, I find it unlikely that Apple would have continued relying on the mapping software of another company, even if Google had provided the same mapping service to iPhone as to (say) Samsung phones. Apple makes pocket computers for perhaps 1/2 of the world’s up-scale consumers, and the needs of its clients (users) for mapping services don’t align with the mapping needs of the rest of the world:

        1- On any given day, very few people are lost, tourists or traveling salesmen who need step-by-step directions to their destinations. Thus, minor errors on the map are easy to find (as you illustrate), but seldom prevent iPhone owners from having a positive experience. The existence of backup map apps (including Google’s) for iPhone means that errors in iMaps result in minor inconveniences at most, rather than major problems.

        2- Other than helping people find their way from point A to point B, a key purpose of iMaps is to relate the user’s location to his/her surroundings. “Here I am at point X, now what is nearby?” iPhone users who ask this question are more focused on commerce (buying/selling goods and services) than other smartphone users, because they both earn and spend more money, particularly on goods and services away from the home. That means greater emphasis on detailed information about nearby businesses and attractions (hours of operation, key products, inventories, waiting lines, consumer ratings/comments, etc.) instead of an address, directions and a storefront photo via street view.

        3- A pocket computer that facilitates virtually every aspect of life acquires/uses a huge amount of personal/private information. iPhone owners are (I believe) more concerned about privacy than other consumers, have more to lose (financially) and don’t want their movements to be parsed, shared and stored for later use by unknown Google ‘partners.’

        4- It is costly to produce/sell mapping services, and the only way to defray that cost is to provide those services to a broad clientele. Due to its success in desktop search, Google achieved the critical mass that justified an investment in mapping services a decade ago. Apple’s clientele now numbers several hundred million iDevice users (at least 300+ million iPhones in active use), which is now enough to justify the investment in mapping. Apple’s involvement in mapping was fairly predictable once the number of iPhone users exceeded a critical threshold.

        5- It is profitable to provide mapping services, because advertisers pay map providers for bringing customers to their door. Since Apple’s customers have higher incomes than the customers of other smartphone makers, Apple was leaving more money on the table than other companies by not getting into mapping. (In other words, Apple was sacrificing profits by assigning the mapping needs of its customers to Google.)

        6- Over time, iPhone (and Apple servers) will be familiar with one’s daily comings and goings, and will provide hints/suggestions without being prompted. Siri might say “Dave, I woke you up 10 minutes earlier than normal today because traffic is backed up on the highway and I didn’t want you to be late for work.” That database and the ability to extract useful information from it will comprise part of Apple’s ecosystem that will make customers more loyal buyers of iPhones. If Google owns that database (or none exists), customers will find it easier to switch from iPhones to other smartphones.

        In short, iMaps isn’t a stand-alone product to be evaluated independently of its integration with Apple’s bigger strategy for iPhone and iOS. Far more analysis is required to show that iMaps is a “disaster,” as the headline says, than a few out-of-place landmarks and misspellings.

  • Steve, how can a nonexistent school have an actual location?

    • steve_wildstrom

      Perhaps a poor choice of words. The school exisis, but not anywhere near the location where the map shows it.

  • Sirkan

    I’m in the DC Area, too. Have you seen how the ICC is listed as I-370 instead of MD-200?

    • Peter

      It’s actually both. Starts as I-370 at the western end off I-270, and converts to MD 200 (toll) when you pass Shady Grove Metro. I guess the über-pedantic would claim that ICC is just the MD 200 section, but the number of signs for it on I-270 would undermine that theory.

  • DarwinPhish

    I realize it must be frustrating for you that there appear to be many errors in your location, but I do not think such limited annicdotal evidence is reason enough to call Apple Maps a disaster. I am sure there are places where Google Maps still has lots of errors and if you think back to where Google maps were in its first year, perhaps you would be less critical. How long did it take Google to get public transit maps?

    Also, I believe Apple did discuss Maps somewhat at WWDC which is the more appropriate venue to discuss software features.

  • OrangeCrush

    My god people, do you remember Google Maps when it was this old? I certainly do and it wasn’t a pretty picture. I was working part time for my mother’s insurance agency at the time, taking pictures of buildings and houses that needed insurance. I was actually going to art college at the time, going for my bachelors of fine art with my focus in photography. My mother figured it would be a good way for me to earn some extra cash while in school and since I knew what I was doing with a camera, it was a chance for her to get quality pictures for the houses and buildings she needed pictures of. So I was spending afternoons driving all over Metro-Detroit and I cant even begin to estimate how many times I got lost using Google maps. It was one of the most frustrating experiences of my life. It was so bad that I actually wound up going to the bookstore and purchasing a Michigan Atlas and I started double checking all the routes with the Atlas before I would step foot in the car.

    I will say this much, people expected more out of Maps but that is only because people expect more out of Apple. Its a company that has been built on top notch quality and sometimes it can be hard living up to your own image. That being said, Maps will be just fine. Just like every other apple product out there, it will continue to get better and better with each new update and I have no doubt whatsoever that Maps will become one of the premiere map apps on the market. People just have short memories when it comes to this kind of stuff as Apple Maps is ahead of where Google Maps was at the same point in development.

    • steve_wildstrom

      Apple cannot compete with Google Maps as it was five years ago. They have to compete with it as it is today anymore than Google can compete with the original iPhone.

      • OrangeCrush

        I disagree completely. Its already significant better than Google Maps was at equal stages in development. I have actually had very good results using Apple Maps and again, as long as Apple continues to improve Maps, which it will, there will be plenty of people willing to use it. Your completely disregarding brand loyalty and Apple is king right now in that regard. People LOVE Apple, and for good reason. They make top notch products that people enjoy using and their customer service is 2nd to none. Even if people continue using Google for the time being, I guarantee that will have zero impact on Apple’s efforts to further improve Apple Maps. Eventually, Apple Maps will be able to stand toe to toe with Google and from this point forward, you will continue to see more and more people using it as Apple continue to improve upon it. To underestimate brand loyalty, especially when dealing with Apple….well, I certainly wouldn’t bet against them not even when going up against Google.

        • steve_wildstrom

          I will go further and say that Apple Maps is far ahead of where Google Maps was at a similar point in its development, which would be 2006 for the original Google Maps or 2010 for the first android version with turn-by-turn navigation.

          But I don’t understand the point of this comparison, which people keep making. Apple’s competition isn’t Google Maps as it was a year after launch but Google Maps as it is today.

          I’m sure Apple will continue to move forward, though I am disappointed by the pace of progress in the first years. The trouble is that Google is moving forward too, most recently with the acquisition of Waze and the incorporation of a lot of crowd-sourced traffic information.

          Apple currently has the third best mobile mapping platform, behind Google and Nokia/Microsoft. That is not a good place to be.

          • Anders CT

            But the thing is, Apple also has Google Maps available on iOS. That Google makes their best services avaliable as quality apps on iOS is a strength of the platform, not an embarrasment to Apple.

            Should Apple also make their own search engine to compete with Google or Bing? To me that sounds like a perfect way for Apple of blowing billions of dollars needlessly.

          • David Thoren

            Wrong. GOOGLE has Google Maps available on iOS. That there is no Apple Maps on Android says more about the companies than the fact that iOS just happens to have one of the best map / navigation services available and an also-ran pre-installed. Android has a lot of also-rans available.

          • OrangeCrush

            How can you not understand the comparison? Your basically judging an app based off of what some other app can do that is 6+ years further ahead in development? Its simply unrealistic to expect Apple Maps to be as good as Google Maps at this point in its development. You yourself openly admit that Apple Map’s is way ahead of where Google was at the same point in development. Of course Apple isn’t competing with Google Maps as it was 6 years ago. That’s just common sense and it wasn’t the basis of my comparison. That doesn’t mean one cant look back at where Google Maps was, at the same point in development, and factor that into a FAR more realistic critique of Apple Maps at this point in time. To critique Apple Maps and completely ignore that fact….well, in my opinion, you ultimately wind up with a heavily flawed/unrealistic critique.

            Clearly one of the biggest problems with Apple Maps isn’t Apple Maps at all, its the unrealistic expectations that many people have in regards to this product and no offense Steve, but I think your posts are a perfect example of this. Don’t get me wrong, even as someone who has had a relatively positive experience with Apple Maps, I can recognize that thus far, it has been a disappointment. That being said, I know Apple will continue to improve Maps and that eventually, it will be able to stand toe to toe with Google Maps. You combine that with the brand loyalty that a significant number of Apple users feel for the company and….well, Apple Maps is going to be just fine. It might take a little bit of time to get there and there might be a couple of bumps along the way, but it will get there.

            1st place, 2nd place, 3rd place, its all irrelevant at this point in the game so I disagree that its not a good place to be. Apple understands this is only the 1st or 2nd inning in a 9 inning ballgame. Its like saying XBox One isn’t in a good position because its in 2nd place in regards to pre orders for next generation video game consoles. The next generation console war between Sony and MS will be raging full force for the next 5-7 years so were not even out of the first inning yet. A few hundred thousand consoles at launch is just completely irrelevant in the big picture. Even if you get pummeled in the first couple of innings, you still have 7 more to get back in the game. Apple knows this and I guarantee that their strategy with Map’s is a long term strategy. Sure, things haven’t gone their way out of the gate but they still have a lot of game left to be played. Again, I would never bet against them.

          • steve_wildstrom

            I understand it. I just don’t think comparing where Apple is to where Google was is a useful metric. Google is not standing still, either, so Apple has to run twice as fast just to keep up. My disappointment is how little, if any, ground they have gained in the last year.

    • Saven

      So you’re comparing a mapping product produced by a leading company in 2012 (web 2.0 era) after years of development and that has had a year to be improved to something from 2006, a time before the iPhone even existed and most internet was still dial-up? That’s like saying a new video site shouldn’t be any more than a v-log. Technology moves on and companies can’t expect to be able to put out inferior products and not be expected to have to compete with modern technology.

  • Anders CT

    Doing Maps right is hard. Google Maps is the result of 7500 people working full time year-round. And I don’t think that Apple neccesarily needs to compete with that, because Google maps is available on iOS. For free.

    Apple is working best when it is focused on perfecting a few core products.

    • pocketfrog

      Yes, creating the Maps app was a silly move by Apple – so unnecessary when we’ve all got Google Maps. All that time and effort could’ve gone into creating something else, or improving an existing app. What a waste.

      • Anders CT

        I don’t think so. Failure is a crucial part of succes. And maybe Apple Maps completed its real objective. Not by being as good as Google Maps, but by inducing Google to make a better maps app for iOS.

        • pocketfrog

          You really think that Apple spent all that time and money on Maps simply to induce Google to make their app better? Seems like an extraordinary waste of resources.

        • David Thoren

          The only reason google couldn’t before was because maps was a core part of iOS.. not a separate app as it is now. And now the built in Apple Maps is running into the same kinds of issues: Updates are delayed until an iOS release. Of course, Apple Maps is also hampered by the bad data behind it.

          • steve_wildstrom

            The Maps app has always been an Apple app. From 2007 until last year it used data and services provided by Google. After Apple substituted its own data. Google came up with its own app, including services, such as turn-by-turn navigation, that it had previously withheld.

            Apple can update the app any time it wants to, just like any other app. and, of course, it can update the map data at any time because that is not stored on the device at all but is served as needed.

  • Luke Olson

    Apple maps will always lag behind Google maps because of one simple reason, Apple Maps is bound to the OS. To update Apple maps it need to be done on a firmware level with an iOS update. Google maps is just an app upgrade. You can’t compete with that level of iteration. Google learned that back when Google Maps was untethered from Android back in 2011(?).

  • S

    Steve,

    Just want to correct you on one thing. Apple Maps hasn’t mistakenly called Bells Mill Road “BeVs Mill Road” as you say. It is simply wrapping the text around the shape of the street, which happens to have made ‘ll’ look like a ‘V’ to you.

  • Matt

    In my neck of the woods, our entire town of 100,000 + people is shown as a national park / state owned property. And we’re actually a suburb of Los Angeles.

    Many addresses are off by miles. And the diving directions take you in endless circles, miles in the wrong direction.

    We travel all over the US on month-long road trips using Google Maps on our iPhones, and have never had problems like those we see on Apple Maps.

    I would consider that a disaster.

  • drb1215

    Apple Maps are better than they use to be…but I still wish they would put my street on the map! I can search for may address, and it will drop a pin where my house is but it does not show the actual street on the map. The problem with not having a street shown is that if I try and navigate to or from my house it has me driving across acres of woods to hop on and off the highway (neat trick if it could be done).

    If you are going to use maps from a GPS vendor (Tom Tom), at least go for someone like Garmin who tends to keep their maps are little bit more current than tom tom does.

Protected by Gerben Law