When Apple occasionally skids on a technological banana skin, the wiseacres who throng the brutal blogosphere erupt with triumphant honking of horns and pointing of holier-than-thou fingers. It's the burden carried by all tall poppies. So it was when Apple Maps, announced with the iPhone 5 in June 2012, was found to be undercooked. Problems over which the bloggers hooted included: Auckland's main train station had been moved out to sea, Dublin had a new airport among the downtown shops and, in Flyover mode, Brooklyn Bridge seemed to have melted.
Apple chief executive Tim Cook apologised immediately, restored Google Maps to the App Store and said Apple Maps would be set straight. The brilliant but headstrong Scott Forstall, senior vice-president for iOS development, refused to apologise and was fired. He left, having cashed in his Apple shares for $35 million.
Forstall's exit shocked some. He was a Steve Jobs protege, having been with him at NeXT and accompanying him on his return to Apple in 1996. Others, seeing the post-Forstall elevation of Jony Ive to be boss of design and development, thought better days lay ahead for Apple's mobile devices and environment.
One might add that Google Maps, while very good, is not without errors, such as displaced buildings and illogical routes. Street View at my house is four years old and some maps are similarly elderly.
But what about Apple Maps? Has Auckland's train station resumed its proper place? Has Dublin's phantom airport gone? Yes, and more has been done without the slightest toot of trumpets. Apple has been as good as Cook's word.
This came home forcefully when a truck took a dramatic somersault on the Bolte Bridge. Within seconds of Victoria's traffic authority closing the bridge and its approaches, Apple Maps showed the disrupted area with a bright-red dotted line and a ''Do Not Enter'' icon. If you clicked the icon, Maps told you of the closure and how best to get off the freeway. Google Maps also showed the bridge closure, but lacked the extra information.
A road-closing accident near Epping in Sydney's north on the same day was similarly marked on Apple Maps, along with other traffic disruptions and diversions in major cities. Live traffic data is now available, and the dramatic 3D Flyover view has been enhanced.
Improvements have come in a steady, unheralded stream within the regular updates being made to iOS 6. Installing every update on your iPhone and iPad is therefore important.
We are told by Casey Chan at Gizmodo that Apple Maps is nearly five times more data-efficient than Google Maps. According to tests by US data monitor Onavo, the average Google Maps download from a mobile network runs to about 1.3 megabytes, but Apple Maps does the same work with less than 300 kilobytes. Chan says the disparity is because Apple uses vector graphics, meaning no new data needs to be downloaded to zoom on a map. Google uses raster graphics, in which a new map is downloaded every time the view changes.
Mapping is an area of huge competition between Google, Apple and, shortly, it would appear, Facebook. Among the third-party companies from which Apple buys map data is Waze, an Israel-based, worldwide crowd-sourced traffic and navigation app downloadable from the App Store and Google Play. Word is that Facebook wants to buy Waze for US$1 billion ($1.03 billion).
Whether Apple, with more than $US100 billion in cash on hand, will compete with Facebook is a question probably exciting the people at Waze, but Apple could do its own crowd-sourcing from an iPhone /iPad/iPod Touch community much larger than Waze's 20 million subscribers.
Street View is now far beyond suburbia, boosting Google's reach for advertising revenue with images as diverse as Scott's hut on Ross Island and underwater views of the Great Barrier Reef. Hikers are trudging over mountain tracks carrying Street View cameras on backpacks. It's all about Google's revenue reach and our voracious appetites for more information on our iPhones. But at least the bloggers might be quiet.