Appledystopia: Independent Technology News

Maps Hype

published by Chand Bellur
September 29, 2012 at 4:45 p.m. PST

The new iPhone 5 is tremendously successful. iOS 6 is fast, sleek, and feature-packed. While many Apple users are jumping for joy, many on the Internet have resorted to cheap tricks to counter this success. The distorted criticism of iOS 6 Maps has this Apple critic actually defending Apple. Having used the app extensively, I can honestly say it is amazing. It is fast, well-designed, accurate, useful and simply beautiful.

In the wake of the media fiasco, Tim Cook has officially apologized for Maps. This is unprecedented for Apple, and a sign of their new leadership. Steve Jobs did address “antennagate”, however, he claimed that users shouldn’t hold the phone a certain way. He was also correct that all phones have this issue. My last feature phone even had a sticker telling the user not to hold it in a certain area.

I think Steve Jobs was correct in not apologizing. When the Maps fiasco first surfaced, many sighed and remarked that this is antennagate all over. No mapping software is perfect. No phone is perfect. Apple is held to a higher standard than others. I think Reminders in iOS 5 was far worse than Maps. The YouTube app was also pretty bad. For me, Maps seemed to be of higher quality than most apps bundled with iOS.

I still think Maps is decent and the victim of a blogosphere smear campaign. Yes, and I operate this site which is critical of Apple! In my opinion, Cook apologized because of the media storm, not because Maps is awful and un-usable. One could say Maps does not live up to Apple standards. However, Apple has released worse software. Even getting my iPad to successfully sync with iTunes over wi-fi is a roll of the dice (and will be the subject of an upcoming how-to article). Where is the media on this one? The media have thorns in their sides, obsessively fixated on Maps. Competitors are pouring gasoline on the blogosphere distortion machine, hoping to put a dent in iPhone 5 sales. It seems with every Apple release, there is one issue that is blown out of proportion. It doesn’t stop people from lining up for days to get the new Apple device.

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This marks a new direction for Apple leadership. Cook is more humble and down-to-earth. I personally think no apology was necessary. I have used Maps extensively, and it has worked well for me. That said, I mainly use the navigation system in my automobile. Cook even recommended other mapping/nav apps until Apple could fix the problems. Unfortunately, since iOS 6 Maps relies on user feedback for corrections, if too many users defect, it could slow down improvements. Cook mentions that with 100 million iOS users currently using Maps, the “…more our customers use our Maps the better it will get”. I plan on using Maps, but verifying critical destinations with MapQuest or Google Maps. One can use Google Maps via Safari, but it does not have voice-based navigation. This has me preferring MapQuest, which is a free app. I think the real-time traffic in Maps is useful, accurate, and has saved me paying for this feature on my car’s nav system.

I am one of many writers who actually like Maps. Perhaps the data is accurate in the SF Bay Area. San Jose Mercury News columnist Larry Magid notes:

“I’ve been using the mapping app for about a week. While I have my complaints, it isn’t all that terrible — at least based on my travels around the Bay Area. To its credit, it provides turn-by-turn directions, a feature that Google has long included in the Android version of Google Maps, but not on the iOS version that Apple used to offer. And like the old Google Maps, it’s integrated with Siri, which is incredibly useful if you need to enter a location while you’re driving. Just tell Siri where you want to go and, if she’s online and if she understands you and knows where it is, she’ll get you there.”

NBC News also posted an article on their website, claiming the iOS Maps furor is overblown. No one is saying the app is perfect. This issue is similar to antennagate, where a minor flaw that exists in all products is blown out of proportion and defined as being unique to Apple.

The main criticism on the Internet is that iOS 6 Maps’ data are inaccurate, not that the app itself is buggy. Some of these claims are contrived. The most infamous example is from a Motorola ad campaign. The campaign shows an iPhone with iOS 6 Maps and a Motorola smart phone side-by-side. The iPhone is shown with a primitive map, although it can actually render a very detailed 3D satellite/hybrid view. The Motorola phone is shown with a hybrid/satellite view, which is neat, but not as impressive as iOS 6 Maps. It is contrived. It doesn’t end there. The claim is that Maps cannot find the address “315 e 15th st ny”. Of course it can’t. It doesn’t exist. It is a park with no address. Check it out on Google Maps — the location it finds is approximate. No one would enter in an address that does not exist, unless it was a mistake.

motorola ad distorts the truth about Maps
Sleazy marketing distortions…

iOS 6 Maps is correct

The location in question does show up on iOS 6 Maps. It just doesn’t show up when you type in a non-existent address. One could argue that Google Maps is better at dealing with indeterminate data. This is academic. How many times have you entered a fictitious address in a map or navigation app? Nonetheless, one could say that iOS 6 Maps handled it better, assuming it was a mistake and that the user meant an address that does exist, which could be mistaken for E 15th Street. When you input “315 e 15th street ny” in iOS 6 Maps, it finds 315 Marlborough Road, which, as you can see, could be mistaken for 315 E 15th Street — an address which does not exist.

315 Marlboro Road

Since Marlborough Road is next to 16th street, and there is a 315 Marlborough Road, Apple’s logic assumes you made a mistake. There could be a fanboy flame war as to which is better. The two apps just handle indeterminate data differently. Google Maps creates its own 315 E 15th Street, which isn’t an address, and labels it “approximate”. iOS 6 Maps assumes it is a mistake, and thinks you mean something else. It’s a very Apple way of dealing with indeterminate data. This Apple way of doing things had me turning off the auto-correction on my iPhone!

It is noteworthy to mention, when you type a search query into Google that it “thinks” is a mistake, it will ask you “did you mean so-and-so?”. For some reason, with Google Maps, they departed from this logic. If the address does not exist, they will assume you meant an address in between existing addresses.

Another blogosphere lie is that iOS never had turn-by-turn navigation. While it is true that iOS Maps and Google Maps (for iOS) did not have turn-by-turn navigation, myriad apps offered this feature. MapQuest for iOS had turn-by-turn nav with spoken directions for quite some time. I used that. Now I use iOS 6 Maps.

Mapquest

I am no stranger to MapQuest. I was using MapQuest (on the web) for directions when Google was still operating out of a garage. The notion that only Google can create a map/navigation app is ludicrous. Navigation systems existed before Google, and many navigation systems work without Google’s map data. Most professional drivers (taxi, truck) still use standalone nav units — Garmin, Magellan and Tom-Tom. These units have data stored internally, and do not rely on an internet connection. Smart phone and tablet based solutions don’t work well when you are in the middle of nowhere with no wi-fi or data connection.

I like Google, but I don’t like Google fanboys who feel that only Google can do mapping. Indeed, Google has put a lot of work into their mapping technology. Street view is amazing. Is it necessary to get from point A to point B? No. Some even feel it is a bit creepy. After all, you see plenty of people captured by Street View, which has been a source of criticism and even litigation. Nonetheless, I look forward to Google Maps for iOS, and will definitely install it. It remains to be seen if Google will make a mapping/nav app for iOS. I hope they do, but I can live without the app. Google Maps (the website) works well in Safari, but has no voice-guided navigation.

If you live in China, iOS Maps is actually more detailed and accurate than Google Maps. According to Anthony Drendel’s blog, the Chinese version of iOS Maps utilized data from Auto Navi Holdings. This is the major mapping service in China.

“As someone who lives in China and has to find my way around, the superiority of iOS 6 Maps is clear. In my experience, the new version of Maps zooms in much further, shows more points of interest, clearly labels banks and cellphone shops (China Mobile, China Unicom, and China Telecom), and gives the locations of ATMs and public restrooms (my original iPad running iOS 5 with Google-powered Maps doesn’t show either of those things). The killer feature, though, is that iOS 6 Maps shows both English names and Chinese characters for everything, whereas Google-powered Maps only shows the English translation (on iOS devices whose language is English). This is killer. English translations are almost useless in China because—guess what—Chinese people don’t speak English. For those of us who can read (at least some) Chinese, this feature is even more important. We can ask for places by name instead of just pointing at its location on a map. So, yes, I may have been wrong to say that Google doesn’t use AutoNavi’s maps (although, I can’t see how they use the same provider since Google-powered Maps and iOS 6 Maps show such wildly different maps for the same location), and for that I apologize. Nonetheless, looking at Google-powered Maps and iOS 6 Maps side-by-side, I would choose iOS 6 Maps every time.”

Maps is not perfect. It is correct that the Tacoma Narrows bridge is poorly rendered. It appears to be “melting”. While this is not ideal, it is an aesthetics issue. It in no way affects navigation or directions. It is a blemish on an otherwise beautiful app.

Tacoma Narrows Bridge melting

Many of the flaws with iOS Maps are true. However, most of them are trivial. Most bridges, even the Brooklyn Bridge, have the “melting” distortion when viewed in satellite mode. This does not affect navigation. Also, Maps is sometimes using location names to render the view. For example, Madison Square Garden is rendered as an actual garden. Airfield Gardens, an actual garden in Ireland, is rendered as an airport. Yes, Maps is not perfect, but for the vast majority of people, it will do the job with grace and elegance. It is the most aesthetically pleasing mapping/nav app I have used. Once these data issues are ironed out (many of them have already been fixed), it will be a killer app.

The Maps application is wonderful, but the data needs improvement. You can actually make it better. I read a wonderful article in MacWorld, providing information on reporting problems with Maps. You can actually provide the correction within the app and send this information to Apple — just peel up the corner of the app. This is helpful and constructive. Since the map data is in the cloud, corrections to map data will not require updating the app. With hundreds of millions of iOS users around the world, cooperation will make this excellent app even better. If you find something that is wrong, by all means, report it.

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From my experience, living in the SF Bay Area, the maps are totally accurate. This may be because Apple is based in Cupertino. With all of the Apple employees in the area, along with iPhone-loving techies, most anomalies in my area have been discovered and fixed. I have played with Maps for hours. It is very engaging and addictive. Even an Apple critic like me has to admit this is a great app. While not perfect, it will get better. At the exceptional price of free, there’s not much to complain about (unless you are a bitter fanboy). If you rely on your iOS device to get around, it may be a good idea to download MapQuest before you drive off to that critical venture capital meeting. You should use Maps, but for important meetings, double-check your directions with MapQuest or another app. If Maps is wrong, take the time to report it. It only takes a few minutes.

Having used navigation systems for over five years, they are all imperfect. My Garmin also gave me the occasional bad direction, particularly around roads that ran parallel to the 101 freeway on the Peninsula (south of San Francisco). Even Google Maps is inaccurate in places like China. Mapping the entire world is a huge and daunting task, but nit-picking at flaws is easy…

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