Apple Maps: Still a Disaster

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.


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.

Maps for iOS: What Does Google Have Against Tablets?

Google maps iPad screenshot

Google’s failure to understand that a tablet is something other than a really big phone is becoming one of the great mysteries of the technology world. The Android tablet business has been crippled by a lack of dedicated tablet apps, a situation that Google has done almost nothing to correct. Now Google has confirmed my worst fears with the release of the long-awaited Google maps for iOS.

Google maps for the iPhone is lovely. It’s better than the old Google-based iOS Maps app, adding vector maps and turn-by-turn directions. And it draws on slick search abilities and deep geographic data knowledge, the lack of which can make using Apple’s own Maps app an adventure. And Google maps integrates transit information (a feature sadly not available in the Washington, DC, area.)

But the iPad is a very different story. For whatever reason, Google did not bother to come up with a separate iPad-optimized version. Like any other iPhone app, Maps will run on the iPad, but like any other iPhone app, it looks ghastly. The picture above shows Google Maps on a  third-generation iPad in 2X mode (the alternative would be to display an iPhone-sized image in the middle of the screen.) . Scrolling and zooming is not as smooth as on the iPhone, and notice the enormous amount of screen area that is wasted by by simply scaling up the various on-screen controls.

This is all rather hard to understand, since Google should have had no trouble developing an iPad version in parallel with the phone edition. Much smaller developers do this all the time. I can only hope that Google will realize that the iPad is something more than a larger iPhone and correct the error quickly.

Google’s Directionless Map Strategy

Marco Arment on Google Maps:

What this timing (of Google Maps) really shows is how much Google needs to be on iOS. They’re primarily in the business of reaching as many people as possible so they can build up as much data and advertise to as many bodies as possible. Android is an insurance policy against their profitable businesses being locked out of other platforms, not an important profit center itself.

Google’s Android strategy is inconsistent and incomprehensible. Apple never would have created its own mapping program at all if Google hadn’t denied Apple audible turn-by-turn directions. Now – after Apple has integrated their own maps into their iOS operating system – Google gives Apple everything they ever wanted. How does that make any sense?

If Google wanted to deny Apple access to features that were on Android, then they shouldn’t have created Google Maps for iOS. If they wanted iOS eyeballs, then they should have given Apple turn-by-turn directions BEFORE Apple effectively un-integrated Google maps. The whole affair was completely counter-productive for all involved.

You can’t have it both ways. Either Google should be in the business of being on every mobile platform or Google should be in the business of Android. Trying to pursue both strategies is like trying to keep one foot on the dock and the other on the boat. You can’t get anywhere and it’s going to sink you sooner or later.

Why Maps are “Really” Important to Apple

In my last Apple Maps column I discussed why Apple would have delivered a suboptimal maps experience. This analysis was really a short term view of why they would do this, and the answer was Wall Street. Net-net, Apple would have felt the Wall Street wrath more than they are already feeling post-iPhone 5 launch had they delayed their launch for a quality product. Now, I’d like to look at the long term value of “maps” and why this could be so important to Apple. The answer is simple, it’s to monetize a huge portion of the internet they aren’t getting a piece of today.

Maps are for More than Getting from Point A to B
For most general consumers, “maps”, if they are even aware of the smartphone functionality, means getting help from getting from point A to point B. My son’s pee wee football coach even places a Google maps link to each away game that provides directions on the smartphone. Even if someone isn’t aware that phone maps exist, all they need to do is click on that link and they will get directions to the game.

For more advanced consumers, “maps” help them find brands or categories of products near them to get phone numbers or driving directions. Want to see how late that Jiffy Lube near your house is open on a Sunday? Search for it and it should have that info of it’s in the database. Looking for some coffee and you don’t care about the brand? Search for “coffee” inside of maps and be directed to the closest place.

With an Android device and Google Now, users can easily check in via Google+ once they arrive at a destination. If you’re searching on Yelp or checking in on FourSquare on any phone, you may even me able to find discounts on your visit.

You see, “maps” are more than about just mapping, they are a portal to the future of local advertising, commerce and payments. You need to teleport yourself five years into the future to get the best idea of just how valuable this is. This is about big money, money that dwarfs what Apple lost in market cap over the past few weeks. Let’s peel back the onion a bit.

Local Advertising, Checkin and Deals
Advertising as a business is larger than movies, games and music combined. Most of those ad dollars get spent locally by the billions of small businesses across the globe and the large businesses trying to reach local consumers. Getting a cut of this would be huge and is no surprise that Google, Groupon, Yelp and Facebook are all going after this full force.

Today and even more in the future, every place we go will be tracked and most consumers allow it. In fact, in the future, telcos will provide subsidies to consumers who let them be tracked and be anonymously “checked-in”. In-context deals will be provided to these users that actually provide value, not the horrible deals most users get today from Groupon and Google. The problem with Groupon offers is that they don’t have good enough profiling or enough deals in inventory to tee up enough relevant deals. The same thing for Google and even Facebook.

Knowing where people are and what they are doing is crucial to building these profiles and for delivering the ultimate in ads, the “pick-off”. The “pick-off” is when an advertiser knows you are going somewhere and will provide you an ad to go somewhere else. Let’s say you search for “pizza” and get directed to “Joe’s Pizza” on 5th and Lamar. “Luigi’s Pizza” is on 7th and Lamar, and through their real-time ad network knows this and sends you an immediate $10 off coupon message if you spend $30, and a window seat for the best people watching. You accept, and you, Luigi and the ad network benefits. OK, so this may be a bit exaggerated but you get the idea.

So who could Apple impact with this? Google, Groupon, Yelp and Facebook. That’s big. This isn’t the only opportunity. How about commerce and payments?

Local Commerce and Payments
Now that Apple and their network knows you have arrived at Luigi’s, the coupon will show up in your Passbook and you are ready to roll. You show up at the front door, show the coupon, and you and your friends are seated at the best seat in the house, right in the front window. The party tweets about what good seats they have and check in on Apple’s Maps.

What about when it’s time to pay? Apple, because they are tied into Luigi’s, has a deal that everyone who uses “Passbook Wallet” gets 1% cash back. Apple has a frequent flyer kind of program where they get freebies toward content and devices. So you are motivated to pay with your “Passbook Wallet”. Upon checkout, the waiter scans your phone’s bar code with their smartphone camera, similar to a Starbucks checkout, and you are off to the next big party.

What companies does this disrupt? It effects a ton of people including Isis, Google (Wallet), VISA, Mastercard, and American Express. Can you even imagine how much profit this could be for Apple?

Maps Drive Big, Long Term Apple Opportunities
As I outlined in my previous analysis, Apple delivered a suboptimal mapping experience to limit the punishment they would have received from Wall Street had they delayed iPhone 5 or iOS 6. Long term, though, the stakes are outrageously high and involve Apple monetizing an enormous profit pool, local advertising and payments. Apple need maps, and evolved maps, to make that a reality and they are well on their way to do this.

Apple Maps: Decision by Wall Street?

Just as we all start to get sick of reading and debating the Apple Maps debacle,  a new interesting thread, issue, or new piece of information comes up.  This time, it was, Apple’s CEO Tim Cook apologizing for the lousy experience Apple Maps delivers.  You should put to rest the debate on whether it’s a good experience or not as it is per Apple’s own admission.  I applaud Apple for its admission, but Apple should never shipped it.  From a company who has defined itself by delivering the best experiences, why was there a decision made to ship a sub optimal experience?
Apple redefined for the entire technology industry what the word "experience" means. While There may be some debate debate if Apple has redefined the personal computer, There’s no one who can legitimately argue that Apple did not do this for the smart phone and even the tablet.
This is why it is just so odd as to why Apple would allow this low-quality map application to be released in the first place.
There are really only two different and mutually exclusive ways this can be explained:
1) Apple forgot how to deliver and evaluate a good experience.  Essentially this scenario says that Apple, after delivering great mobile experiences for years, forgot how to do that and how to measure it.
2) Apple knew they were delivering a poor experience and decided to ship the iPhone 5 and iOS 6 anyways.  they would deal with the consequences afterwards.
Any reasonable person who follows technology closely must know that it’s the second option.
This then gets to the decision making process.  Anyone who has ever spent any time in product management knows that near the launch of a product, you have many launch readiness reviews. Apple may call their review something different, but they have something like it.   It involves cross functional teams, typically including product management, product marketing, program management, engineering, manufacturing and operations. Each group goes through their review, one after the other. These types of meetings essentially compare the minimum launch criteria with the current state of the product. The outcome of this meeting determines if the product is ready to ship or not and the critical actions to close the gap. The most senior executives rarely attend these meetings, but are sought afterwards for escalation If there are issues.
You can bet that Apple maps was reviewed and scrutinized over and over and over. You can assume some people said that the experience was good enough to ship and there were those who said Apple maps was not ready to be shipped.  The decision probably came down to Tim Cook himself, who opted to ship a sub-optimal Apple maps experience.
Tim Cook had a very difficult decision to make in that none of them resulted in anything optimal. He had to choose between:
1) Ship a sub optimal experience coincident with the launch of the iPhone 5, "hitting" commit dates made to Wall Street, press and retailers. With this decision Apple would potentially take the heat from consumers and the press.
2) Delay shipping the iPhone 5  until Apple Maps delivered a good experience. This would raise the ire of Wall Street and investors.  As we have seen over the last two weeks, Even though Apple shipped millions of the new iPhone five, it still wasn’t good enough for much of Wall Street. Imagine, if the iPhone five were delayed by a few months.  Imagine what that would’ve done to the stock price.
So how did it work out for Apple? Short-term, it worked out pretty well if you measure in terms of sales. They sold 5 million iPhone 5s the first weekend and 100M ungraded to iOS 6.  Apple’s stock hit a massive hit this week, but it’s unclear to say if Apple Maps were the culprit, if it was financial analyst expectation versus how many they sold, or fears of production issues.  It was a combination of all of these.   Apple’s reputation has surely taken a hit but it’s unknown if it will have any lasting impact. Apple’s prior issues with products stemming from things like iPhone antennas, MobileMe, and Ping barely made a brand scratch and was followed up by record selling products.  I do believe that people will start to question brand-new things that Apple gets into that are related to their core competencies.  These are could be markets like search and products like TVs.
So why was the decision made to ship a lousy Apple Maps experience? As we’ve seen Apple’s stock get hammered as of late, it was about the stock price.  Imagine if Apple had delayed shipping the Phone 5.  The stock would have been hammered even harder.  Therefore, Apple’s Tim Cook probably made the right short-term business and stock decision even if it wasn’t in the best interests of its customers.  You see, brands have half-lives, and while Apple cannot have a string of incidents like Apple Maps, it can afford this one in isolation.  Tim Cook, Wall Street thanks you.  Apple Maps users, not so much.

Confessions of a Reviewer: How the iPhone Maps Mess Was Overlooked

Sample Apple mapHow did they miss it?

If you go back and read the reviews of the iPhone 5  published on the first day that Apple allowed recipients of early samples to write, you would be stunned by the furor the soon broke out over the quality of Apple’s Maps app. Of the major early reviewers, only The Wall Street Journal‘s Walt Mossberg  noticed major flaws in Maps, noting its “big minuses” in his second paragraph. Others either failed to mention Maps at all, or praised the app. The New York Times‘s David Pogue may have set some sort of record by writing an initial column in which he called the Maps app one of the iPhone’s “chief attractions” and coming back a week later with a column calling that same app “an appalling first release.”

I spent 15 years reviewing tech products for BusinessWeek and the depressing truth is that oversights and errors like these are painfully easy to make. I wrote reviews of major products that had been in my hands for as little as 36 hours, which barely gave me enough time to figure out what the major features were, let alone test them thoroughly. (My best guess is that iPhone reviewers had their test units for five or six days before they had to write.)  I relied too heavily on the review materials and demos provided by the manufacturers, and these tend to steer reviewers to the features that work best and away from the ones that are dicey.

It’s hard to say whether the extreme time pressure facing reviewers is the result of a deliberate strategy by companies or a necessity of the product cycle; it probably varies from case to case. The companies are often working under very tight schedules themselves and the products, particularly their software, is often not final until just before release. I was always grateful to companies that provided products extra-early, even on the understanding that the hardware was a pre-production sample the software wasn’t quite finished. I could log the defects and see if they were fixed in the final product. (My favorite was very early in  my tech career, when I spent more than a year watching Windows 95 evolve through its testing.)

The Maps problems were particularly easy to miss. iPhone reviewers were focused on the new hardware and Maps is actually part of the general update of iOS software for iPhones and iPads. Testing mapping software is time consuming and the problems of the apple app are much more serious in some locations than others, so it depended on where you looked. I was lucky. I installed iOS on my iPad, opened up Maps, and discovered a glaring flaw right in my neighborhood: the main campus of the National Institutes of Health was missing. That got me looking and I quickly discovered lots of other problems.

I think the bottom line here is pretty simple: The pressures reviewers are under all but guarantee that mistakes will be made, though I can’t remember one quite as glaring or near-universal is this. Don’t put too much faith in the fevered first batch of reviews, especially of products that inspire a reviewer feeding frenzy. The problems will be discovered quickly enough.


Oops! Apple Needs a Remapping [Updated]

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.