Apple and Mobile Mapping – Oops.. They Dropped the Ball
If you follow technology at all, then you know that the big news (and joke) last month was Apple’s extreme failure in mobile mapping on iOS devices. Quietly, the company replaced Google Maps with its own, proprietary mapping software which sourced maps from a third party. There were many reasons for Apple to do this, many of which lay blame on Google, but the reality is, when Apple replaced its mobile maps with its own source, the maps were immediately noticed by users to be worse than useless.
A firestorm of commentary and complains ensued. While users could still browse over to maps.google.com and get the maps they were used to, it was not nearly as convenient as before and many apps automatically switched to using Apple’s mapping because they were geared towards the phone’s default. Not only were the new maps inaccurate, but they were a lot less useful and informative as well.
When the hubub reached its crescendo, Apple’s CEO Tim Cook made a statement regarding them, admitting that the company had fallen short with the map swap and apologized for the failure. He said the company was “working” towards resolving it and improving their own maps to become what users want, including incorporating user input and feedback into the process.
What he missed was the massive amount of work that lies ahead if Apple’s maps are to be even close to what Google has already done.
=== Google’s Mapping Project
What should be obvious here is that Google has spent tens of millions of dollars on its mapping and has been working on building the most robust satellite and street-level map solution for years. It didn’t start last week or last month or last year. It started almost at the company’s founding. No other non-military survey of our planet has been as in-depth, robust, and detailed as Google’s has.
From specially-outfitted cars (called Google Cars) to high-end licensing of satellite time and photography, Google’s mapping project has created something we all take for granted: maps that give us not only the ability to see things in detail from overhead, but also the ability to go down to street level at most points of interest and see things at eye level in 360-degrees.
The problem? Now Google wants to get some of its investment back and has changed how companies (and apps) can access Google’s Maps. Those who use it more than a little must pay.
=== Apple’s Switch
Apple, hoping to avoid those fees as well as bring something else in-house (part of their business strategy), hoped to circumvent Google (a clear competitor) by using a third-party source (a relatively new, open-source mapping project) for its maps. Since most apps need only satellite and street-diagram level maps, not eye-level street views, this was probably not a bad idea. Except that the maps given by the new project are often inaccurate to the point of being useless.
The open source project, being new, has few geographically dispersed inputs for its maps and little to no fact-checking for them. Think of it as Wikipedia before that was a household word – the early Wikipedia site was less than objective and often fraught with questionable facts. This changed with time, of course, as user numbers grew and more and more participated in editing. But that takes time.
So unless Apple throws a lot of resources into improving its map source (and I do mean a LOT of resources), it’s not likely to happen for their own mapping app anytime soon.