Let me rant about iOS 6 Maps a little

Software

I have two eligible devices that could be updated to iOS 6, a third-generation iPad and an iPhone 4. When I realised the step backwards regarding the quality of the new Apple Maps application (replacing the previous version, based on Google Maps), I got cautious. On the one hand, I was eager to try some of the new features and improvements in iOS 6; on the other, since I’ve come to rely on the Maps app quite often — especially for public transportation directions — I really wasn’t too much excited to ‘upgrade’ to a new Maps app which doesn’t even have such directions. Thus, the decision came easily: I would update my iPad to iOS 6, but not my iPhone 4. Until Google releases a standalone Maps application for iOS 6, I’ll leave iOS 5.1.1 on my iPhone.

After exploring the new Maps app on the iPad for quite a bit, I must say I made the right choice. One of the first searches I performed in Maps was an easy one, or so I thought: I would ask Maps directions to reach the one official Apple Store here in Valencia. I reported my experience in this brief post on The Quillink annotated. (By the way, after reporting the problem, the issue seems to have been corrected already, so kudos to Apple for the speed).

These days I’ve been trying other Maps queries, and the results are quite the disaster. Maps got right 5 search queries over 25. In some instances, I did what other users did to test the accuracy of the application: I searched for well-known places or sites whose location I know exactly, and the results I obtained were spectacularly inaccurate or led me nowhere (both literally and figuratively). I even had to slightly correct my home address, because when I tapped on it in my Contacts’ card, Maps opened and placed the pin in another town outside Valencia. Needless to say, the same queries in Google Maps returned accurate results and precise directions.

One common error in the new iOS 6 Maps app is due to its inflexibility and apparent inability to handle ambiguous or incomplete queries. You can’t expect people to write a perfectly formed address all the time. Furthermore, often users search directions for a place (such as a point of interest, or businesses, restaurants, petrol stations, banks, etc.) they really don’t know its address. When you perform a search in the previous Google-based Maps app after asking the app to pinpoint your current location, the app assumes you’re looking for places in your vicinity, and returns a fairly accurate result even when your query is approximate and generic. If I’m walking near Valencia’s centre and ask where “Calle Colón” is (Calle Colón is a rather big avenue right in the centre of Valencia), Google Maps responds by showing me a bunch of pins indicating businesses and other places I can find along the actual Calle Colón in Valencia. Apple Maps shows me the Calle Colón of a town outside Valencia. To get something useful out of Apple Maps I have to form a more precise query. In this example, I have to ask Apple Maps where “Calle de Cristóbal Colón” is. (For English speakers: it’s like the difference between asking about “Columbus Avenue” and “Christopher Columbus Avenue”).

I completely agree with Federico Viticci’s comments on Apple Maps in his immense piece The iOS 6 Trilemma:

Above, I wrote that users just want stuff to work. They don’t care about deals between companies or the strategic importance of moving away from Google. Many of those who will upgrade to iOS 6 will find a worse Maps application than the one they used to have.

Apple Maps are pretty. The standard view is all vector-based, so you can zoom in and out without losing any detail. Their icons are colored and nice. But besides that, just about everything else is a step backwards from Google Maps here in Italy, and especially in my area.

And here in Spain as well.

[…] Every once in a while, looking for a location in Viterbo takes me to another city in Italy, although I entered the name correctly. Occasionally, this happens with local businesses too: I hit the “Locate” button, type in the name of a store in Viterbo, and suddenly I’m in Rome. […]

As I’ve already outlined, the same phenomenon has happened to me here in Valencia, too.

[…] Local business search is inferior to Google Maps. Apple has nicer icons to differentiate businesses, but the results are fewer and out of date. […]

Same here, and possibly worse if you consider that Valencia isn’t a small town. In my generic search for Greek restaurants, Siri, using the Maps framework, returned four results. Two of them were for the same business, but with the address written in two slightly different ways, so that one seemed to be near where I live, and the other in a completely different town. Oh, by the way, that Greek restaurant closed more than a year ago, and now there’s a sushi restaurant in its place.

I also agree with Federico about the loss that is the removal of Street View, replaced by an inferior and rather useless ‘3D’ representation; and the Flyover feature, which may be beautiful to look at if you’re living in big American cities, but for the rest it’s little more than a gimmick.

[…] Even if Flyover had better imagery, animations, and was faster and more responsive, I don’t think it would be as useful as Street View. It’s a cool toy. But to get the job done – to explore cities as humans would – I have to use Street View on my computer. Humans drive and walk, they don’t fly. Flyover sounds good on marketing material – “stunning 3D images with animations!” – but in actual usage, it’s terrible. […]

Exactly.

And here comes the part where I agree most with Federico, worth of a full quote:

People want their devices to work. Normal people use these things to plan trips, go to work, wake up in the morning, catch the bus to go to school. These devices have changed and improved many aspects of people’s lives. We’re not playing games here anymore. The tech press is so entrenched in itself, we have forgotten normal people use their iPhones and iPads not for “reviews” and “exclusives” – they use them to do stuff. To get the kids to school on time. To learn a city’s landmarks and must-see locations before going there.

How are we going to tell these people that, because of Apple’s strategy, they’ll have to cope with an inferior version of Maps?

How do we tell students that public transit directions are no longer, that they’ll have to use separate “App Store apps” – which aren’t available yet?

Can we justify Apple Maps in the name of the greater good?

Personally, I can’t. Because while I could go on and let my friends read the “Company” section above and try to make them understand that, yes, that’s why Apple had to ditch Google, the truth is – they don’t care. They are going to update to iOS 6 because they’re curious, just like everybody else, and they’re going to ask about “the Maps app that doesn’t work anymore”.

They won’t say “Yeah, but at least Apple has more control now”.

They won’t say “At least Apple’s icons are nicer”.

Those are things bloggers like me write. The “normal people” will hate that the new Maps app isn’t as good as before.

And we’ll have to tell them that “It’ll get better soon”. Because it’s not great since day one.

It’s time we stop giving Apple a free pass on everything. Enough with the sugar-coating. Earlier this year, someone argued that the privacy fiasco was actually a good thing because it could have been worse on Android. What kind of explanation is that? It was bad, period. With Maps, I have a similar black & white view. The current version of Maps is, from a data standpoint, a step backwards from Google Maps, with the exception of turn-by-turn navigation, which is a great addition.

As a tech writer, I understand the importance of Apple’s new Maps, and I applaud their decision to build their own solution for the future. I also understand that, while Apple could have licensed some Google technologies such as Street View and public transit directions to include as options in the new Maps, they didn’t want to.

As a user, I can’t help but think that this needed more time, that maps simply aren’t ready in many areas, and that Google Maps was just better.

Apple’s response, “The more people use Maps, the better it will get”, is just baffling to me. As I said on Twitter, I think maps are a bigger deal than Genius playlists. When the Genius feature was new, the first days it returned me laughable results, and soon started getting better and better. The big difference is that when Genius in iTunes failed to give a useful suggestion, it wasn’t really a problem. If one likes Enya, who cares if Genius suggests Iron Maiden, right? But when you ask directions for a place you’d like to reach but you don’t know where it is, and Maps sends you 25 kilometres away, in another town, to a nonexistent restaurant, government office building, or — worse — doesn’t help you to find a hospital or clinic, well, that’s a whole other story. After submitting 15 ‘Report a problem’ in Apple Maps, I really don’t feel like doing the homework for Apple. Not when there’s already a better product around. “The more people use Maps, the better it will get” to me really sounds like “The more people find themselves lost today, the less they’ll find themselves lost tomorrow”. I’ll just go back to my paper maps, thanks.

Yes, Google Maps has been around for a longer period of time and it’s a more mature and refined product. Yes, I know that Apple couldn’t have possibly developed an equally mature and refined product overnight. But I must say, I also didn’t expect Maps to be this level of bad. And Apple didn’t start acquiring map companies just a few weeks ago, it’s been three years at least. I don’t know what’s behind the scenes, and I don’t pretend to tell Apple what it should do or have done — God forbid. At the same time I can’t help feeling Apple hasn’t invested enough in developing a good map product, especially if it’s meant to compete against something like Google Maps.

Another thing that annoys me are certain reactions like ‘Maps works great where I live, what’s the big deal people are making?’ or people who point out that even Google Maps isn’t always perfect and accurate. Or paternalistic crap like this Apple Maps: The FAQ. It’s true that Google Maps aren’t perfect, but at this point the error, the missing or inaccurate or ridiculous result (directions-wise, at least) seems to be the exception in Google Maps and the rule in Apple Maps. Tech writers and informed geeks may understand what’s happening, but the majority of common users, the millions who will purchase the new iPhone and who are already upgrading to iOS 6 — as Viticci points out — will simply find themselves with an inferior Maps application that does not ‘just work’. Inferior not from an engineering standpoint — it’s actually prettier than Google Maps: vector-based maps, better typography, visually appealing turn-by-turn directions, etc. — but as regards to sheer reliability. Which I think is all that matters with maps and directions.

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