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Embarrassing, appalling, illogical, incomplete, erroneous — these words are rarely used to describe Apple's products but all and more have been applied to Apple Maps in what observers are calling Apple's least usable piece of software yet.
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Apple's Maps app is riddled with mistakes including dodgy misrepresentations of well known landmarks, as Deputy Technology Editor Ben Grubb demonstrates.
The fiasco will take “quite some time” to fix due to a lack of expertise and “C-grade” data, mapping experts say, while Google is reportedly months away from releasing a Google Maps app for iOS.
Apple hastily launched its own mapping service earlier this month when it began providing the highly anticipated update to its mobile software platform iOS 6 and started selling the iPhone 5. The negative responses flowed thick and fast and Apple was accused of putting its battle with Google ahead of customers.
Users have complained that Apple Maps, based on a mish-mash of data from firms such as TomTom and Yelp, contains glaring errors and omissions, misplaces entire towns, suffers from numerous visual defects, lacks detail and provides dangerous directions.
New York Times gadget reviewer David Pogue today declared maps “an appalling first release” and possibly “the most embarrassing, least usable piece of software Apple has ever unleashed”. Pogue says it will take “a very long time” to fix, as all fixes need to be made individually by hand.
Dr Michael Dobson, a professional cartographer, geospatial consultant and academic who writes a blog on TeleMapics.com, said Apple used “C-grade” suppliers of data for its maps and did not have the internal skills required in mapping and data collection and analysis.
“Apple's maps are incomplete, illogical, positionally erroneous, out-of-date, and suffer from thematic inaccuracies,” he wrote in a recent post. He added adding the inability to "crowd-source" fixes to its maps like with Google's Map Maker means it will be "difficult to address all of the errors for quite some time" (although Apple does allow users to report bugs).
Scores of readers have written in with examples of Australian errors, and dozens more examples have come in since the first story was published last week. These include:
- Several hospitals placed in the wrong location; some police stations not on the map at all.
- Directions that advise users to go through roundabouts on the right-hand side of the road into oncoming traffic, and give the wrong exits.
- Satellite photos more than three years out-of-date in some areas.
- Satellite images spliced with black-and-white shots.
- Directions completely off-kilter, leading users through shopping malls, up closed roads.
- Dozens of businesses, towns and landmarks in the wrong place or not there at all.
- Wrong public transport stations, and stations listed that closed years ago.
- Trams not shown for Melbourne.
- Ignores toll roads and advises long routes.
- Cairns placed in the Daintree Rainforest.
- Lakes such as Lake Burley Griffin in Canberra look like mountains.
- Luna Park in Melbourne and Sydney looks like an a apocalyptic fair.
- Directions to Melbourne airport lead out on to the runway.
Many international examples can be found on the Tumblr blog theamazingios6maps.tumblr.com.
The quality of Apple maps outside the US and especially in regional areas is particularly poor, but users in China say the app there is much better than Google's maps. However, one Australian living in China said the maps showed “nothing at all outside of China” — Australia had no detail at all — and other Chinese users had the same issue.
The maps debacle led The New York Times to question whether Apple had peaked, while BusinessInsider drew comparisons between Apple's situation and the decline of Microsoft. The maps issues came on top of other iPhone 5 issues such as Wi-Fi connectivity problems, the new proprietary Lightning connector and new handsets arriving damaged.
'Hubris is a powerful emotion'
Dr Dobson wrote that the most egregious error was that Apple's team relied on quality control by algorithm and not a process partially vetted by informed human analysis.
“You cannot read about the errors in Apple Maps without realising that these maps were being visually examined and used for the first time by Apple's customers and not by Apple's QC [quality control] teams,” he wrote. “If Apple thought that the results were going to be any different than they are, I would be surprised. Of course, hubris is a powerful emotion.”
As Apple fails go, this was one of the company's biggest — arguably larger than “Antennagate” in 2010 and the MobileMe fiasco in 2008.
Maps are among the most-used applications on smartphones and by dumping Google Maps in favour of an inferior version Apple has given Google's Android platform a leg-up. AIMIA's Australian Mobile Phone Lifestyle Index, released today, found that of the 1784 respondents, 74 per cent used maps and navigation apps - the most popular category.
Google reportedly has 7000 staff working on its maps and while Apple is frantically attempting to poach some of them using its more than $100 billion in cash, Google continues to announce new updates to its mapping products. (Yesterday it introduced underwater views of the Great Barrier Reef).
They should've kept Google Maps: Eric Schmidt
Google executive chairman Eric Schmidt said this week that Google had “not done anything yet” to provide a Google Maps app for iPhone 5.
"We think it would have been better if they had kept ours. But what do I know?" Schmidt told a small group of reporters in Tokyo. "What were we going to do, force them not to change their mind? It's their call."
Apple built the replacement app because it wanted to scale back its relationship with Google — and not due to any product flaws — two sources familiar with Apple's development of the mapping features told Bloomberg.
Google has spent years collecting data for its maps and refining its systems and Apple has essentially started at square one.
Matt Duckham and Stephan Winter, who research mapping and navigation at the University of Melbourne, wrote in a recent article on The Conversation website that imperfection was unavoidable in any map and errors increase as you combine data from multiple sources.
“If data sets of different currency are combined, mapped differences show up immediately, such as text labels at locations where the underlying geometric data has no feature (yet),” the pair wrote.
“Even if geographic data is current and topologically and positionally accurate, it is notoriously difficult to perform accurate searches on geographic place names (termed “toponyms”).”
Schmidt said Google and Apple were in constant communication "at all kinds of levels". But he said any decision on whether Google Maps would be accepted as an application in the Apple app store would have to be made by Apple.
Apple axed Google Maps a year early: reports
Apple Maps was reportedly introduced more than a year before Apple's agreement to use Google Maps expired, catching Google off-guard. The Verge website and The New York Times reported that Google was working on an iOS app for Google Maps but was months away from completion. Google Maps is still used by Apple when users share their location with non-iOS6 devices.
The Wall Street Journal's AllThingsD blog has since reported that the Apple-Google agreement for maps soured after disagreement over voice-guided turn-by-turn navigation — a standout feature on Android phones but previously lacking on the iOS Google Maps. Apple decided it had to build its own rather than let a competitor call the shots over a key feature.
Google and Apple were close partners with the original iPhone in 2007 and its inclusion of YouTube and Google Maps. But the ties between the two have been strained by the rise of Google's Android mobile operating system, now the world's leading platform for smartphones.
Schmidt said he hoped Google would remain Apple's search partner on the iPhone but said that question was up to Apple.
"I'm not doing any predictions. We want them to be our partner. We welcome that. I'm not going to speculate at all what they're going to do. They can answer that question as they see fit," he said.
Google provides Android free-of-charge and allows developers to add applications on an open basis, betting that by cultivating a bigger pool of users — now at more than 500 million globally — it can make more money by providing search functions and selling advertising.
"Apple is the exception, and the Android system is the common model, which is why our market share is so much higher," Schmidt said, adding that success was often ignored by the media, which he said was "obsessed with Apple's marketing events and Apple's branding".
"That's great for Apple but the numbers are on our side," he said.
At one point, Schmidt, who was in Japan to announce the launch of Google's Nexus tablet there, used the device to show off a new function of Google Maps.
The feature allows users to shift their view of an area by moving the device in the air without touching the screen, similar to the effect of looking around.
"Take that Apple," he said, adding quickly, "That was a joke by the way."
On its website Apple says its maps app is “the most beautiful, powerful mapping service ever”. But last week it appeared to acknowledge the service's failings, saying it was “just getting started” with maps and “the more people use it, the better it will get”.