Friday, September 21, 2012

Apple flubs its Maps app

I am in no hurry to rush out and get the iPhone 5: I got a iPhone 4S at the end of last year, I am very satisfied with it and I see absolutely no reason to purchase a new device at this time. I was, however, considering upgrading the operating system on my phone to the recently-released iOS 6, until I heard about this debacle:
This picture has been making the rounds on Facebook.
Call it karma, call it a comeuppance, call it what you will: The Apple Mapocalypse has come. After kicking Google Maps off its new mobile operating system for the iPhone and iPad, iOS 6, Apple is receiving massive backlash from users around the globe, who report that Apple’s replacement maps, “Apple Maps,” are riddled with strange glitches, inaccurate direction and location data, and fall short of Google Maps.

 Apple launched iOS 6, an upgrade for all iPad generations from the iPad 2 onward and all iPhone models from the 3GS and newer, on Wednesday to mostly rave reviews. Users can download it wirelessly from their iDevices by simply navigating to the “Settings: General: Software Update” menus.

But within hours, complaints about the new Apple Maps came pouring in online. So far, they appear to mostly be affecting users outside of the U.S., but complaints from U.S. users are picking up.
From a business standpoint, it made sense that Apple didn't want to depend on its competitor (Google is the developer of the Android operating system, and devices that run Android are the iPhone's main competition in the smartphone market) for mapping services on its devices. But the fact remains that Goggle's mapping services (e.g. Google Maps, Google Earth, Google Transit, Google Streetview) are the best services of their kind. Apple attempted to create from scratch a mapping service that was comparable, and in some ways even superior, to Google's products. So far, it appears they've failed rather miserably:
Screenshots posted online appear to show a museum located underneath a river, while the map service seems to deny the existence of the English town Stratford-upon-Avon, where Shakespeare was born. Other users say a search for London directed them to London, Ontario, in Canada, instead of the British capital.

Many customers say they are upset that Apple has removed mentions of public transportation routes or stations from its new map service, a popular feature on the Google system which allowed users to see bus and train schedules at individual stations.

Ireland's Minister for Justice expressed concern that the new Apple maps identify a working farm in a residential area of suburban Dublin as an airport, a potential hazard for pilots.
The Apple's maps have already inspired a Tumblr feed, the ironically named "The Amazing iOS 6 Maps," filled with examples of mangled mapping. And some Twitter users pointed out the irony in that the new map system was unable to pinpoint an Apple store in Sydney, Australia, which it placed on the wrong side of the road.
If you have a few minutes, take a look at some of those screenshots on the Tumblr site, which range from humorous to horrifying. Seeing some of those screenshots, and reading about some of the failures of Apple Maps in general, makes me wonder what kind of QA/QC process - if any - Apple performed on this application before releasing it to the general public.

Part of the problem might be the fact that the data used for Apple Maps comes from a wide variety of sources, including TomTom, OpenStreetMap and the U.S. Census TIGER database, and that integrating and presenting data from so many different sources is inherently challenging. Ultimately, however, the buck stops with Apple: it's their product.

Apple, for their part, is asking for users' patience while bugs are worked out. There are rumors, meanwhile, that Google itself might come to the rescue of irate iOS 6 users by releasing a stand-alone Google Maps app for that operating system. However, such an app would be subject to Apple's approval, and as the Chronicle's Dwight Silverman explains, that would put Apple in a conundrum:
Apple’s in a tough position here. If it doesn’t approve the Google Maps app, it runs the risk of looking like a bully. Sure, it could deny the app based on developer rules forbidding software that duplicates basic iOS functions, but there are a slew of other map apps out there already.

If Apple does approve the Google Maps app, and the app runs circles around Apple’s own – as it’s likely to do, given the quality of the Android version – then Apple comes off looking lame against its fiercest competitor.
This is yet another cautionary tale as to why it makes sense not to rush out and buy a new device the day it is released, but rather to wait a few weeks while previously-unforeseen bugs are worked out: all those people who waited in line all night just to be the first one on the block to have the iPhone 5 are now stuck with a lousy mapping program.

Until this problem is resolved one way or another, I will not be upgrading my iPhone's system to iOS 6.

Time's Matt Peckham lists five alternatives to Apple Maps for iOS 6 users. If you do decide to get an iPhone 5, here are eleven good suggestions on what to do with your old iPhone.

UPDATE: Don't expect a quick fix to the Apple Maps problem, for a variety of reasons. 

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