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.

Google vs. Microsoft: Just Cut It Out

YouTube screen shot

Hostilities between Google and Microsoft are heating up, and users are being caught in the crossfire.

Microsoft, of course, has spent the last couple of years trying to bring the wrath of the federal government down on Google. This campaign failed last week, when the Federal Trade Commission let Google off with a mild admonishment because it did not have a case it thought it could win.

There’s no way to know if this is retaliation, but Google seems determined to make life difficult for Microsoft customers. The latest evidence is Google’s apparent decision to block access to Google Maps from Windows Phone 8 handsets. The issue is shrouded in a bit of confusion. Gizmodo first reported the blockage. Google responded by saying that the problem was that the mobile version of Google Maps is designed to work with Webkit browsers and the Windows Phone 8 browser is based on the non-Webkit Internet Explorer. But this explanation fell apart when Microsoft pointed out that the Windows Phone 8 browser is essentially the same as the Windows 8 version of IE, which works just fine with Google Maps.

App developer Matthias Shapiro seemed to settle the argument with a YouTube video  that shows calls from Windows Phone 8 to Google Maps failing until the browser-agent string is changed to disguise the browser. With the phony browser-agent string, Google Maps worked just fine (in what appears to be a Windows Phone 8 emulator).

Fortunately, Windows Phone 8 users have other mapping options. I supposed Google has the right to deny its Maps service to any device it wants to block, but this just seems dumb and petty.

In other Google annoyances, yesterday I entered a search string in my Chrome browser and when the search page came up, I got an odd popup asking me if I wanted to share my results on Google+. Thinking that no one could conceivably be interested in my search for information on Fermat’s Little Theorem, I closed the window, unfortunately before I thought to capture a screen shot.  I have not yet been able to replicate this behavior, but Google popping up a G+ interstitial every time I do a search could just drive me to Bing.

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.

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.