The iOS 6 Maps app is why my next phone may be a Samsung, not an iPhone 5
This isn't a political statement. It's not an empty protest over how bad Apple's Maps app is. It's because for the first time I've lost confidence that an Apple product is the best choice for my needs.
In iOS 6 and on the iPhone 5, a significant feature -- one that tens of millions of people rely on daily -- does not work as it should. In fact, calling it "a feature" doesn't do it justice; it's a necessity for any smartphone. For me, it's as important as email and phone calls and surfing the web. Maybe more important -- mapping tells us where we are in the world and where we are going. As of iOS 6, this capability we've come to rely on so heavily can no longer be trusted.
The iOS 6 Maps launch has underlined what we already knew: No one does maps like Google does -- not even close. By leaving Google Maps off iOS 6 Apple has done a deep disservice to its user base. That user base, by the way, is orders of magnitude larger than it ever was when the Mac dominated Apple's product line and profit margins; this is something that potentially touches hundreds of millions of users around the world.
Apple Maps is not a finished product. I wouldn't even call it a beta product. It misplaces airports and schools and roads. It leads me in the wrong direction. It doesn't show me stores or schools or parks that are clearly right in front of my eyes.
This obliterates the user experience on iPhone.
I've used every iPhone that has ever existed. My current phone is an iPhone 4S and I pre-ordered an iPhone 5 on launch day. As of yesterday, I've canceled that pre-order and am planning on picking up a Samsung phone this week.
Now, before I get into the reasons for my leap to Android (and why Apple Maps are so bad), before someone accuses me of being an "Apple hater," I want to explain how hard a choice this was for me -- and how I am the last person who'd choose to dump on Apple.
I write for TUAW. I've used Apple technology almost exclusively for the last 12 years of my life. I also spent half a decade of my life working for Apple. I still have dozens of friends at Apple in design, marketing and sales.
Besides my personal and professional connections to the company and its products, I also have a financial interest in seeing the company succeed; I've been steadily investing in it for the last 11 years. But like most other people, if you eliminate all my personal, professional and financial connections, I really only ever went by one criterion when deciding to use an Apple product: I believed it was the best product for my needs; it performed the best out of all the other products out there for what I needed it to do. In short, as Steve Jobs used to say, "It just works."
With Apple Maps, it no longer does. With Apple Maps, the iPhone is significantly hampered.
Apple's new Maps is a black mark on the company's stellar product record in the Steve Jobs II era and beyond. Sure, Apple has released some iffy stuff (Ping, MobileMe) and hasn't been immune to its share of engineering faults ("Antennagate") or not fully baked features (Siri). But those things didn't hinder a product we were depending on in a significant way for a significant number of users. Apple Maps does.
What's so broken about Maps?
Sure, it looks different than Google Maps -- Apple would say "better than" -- but it's easy to get used to the way Maps looks instead of the yellow, reds, and greens of Google Maps. And yeah, the elimination of transit directions is also a significant setback, but there are plenty of third-party apps that work better than public transit directions ever did in Google Maps, covering most urban and suburban areas with transit services.
The real failure of Apple Maps comes from the fact that it is still clearly an alpha product (not even a beta like Siri -- an alpha) that should never have been released in its current state.
Now, as my colleague Michael Rose pointed out, Apple may have had some legitimate reasons (like turn-by-turn navigation that Google didn't allow under its API) to create its own mapping solution. But another significant reason is Apple wants to wean itself off of any dependance it has on Google. Will it be a win for users? Maybe, but only when the entirety of Apple Maps finally works as well as Google Maps does.
Unfortunately that's not going to happen any time soon. It feels like Apple put corporate strategy ahead of user experience -- granted, that's happened before (No floppy drives! No serial ports! No optical drives!) but generally in the service of something readily perceptible. I mean, this is a company that says it sometimes doesn't release great products they've created in the labs because they weren't quite right or didn't fill a need that users could better get from someone else. "Not quite right" is an understatement when referring to Apple Maps and "can't get it better anyplace else" is just flat out wrong as long as Google and its mapping data is around.
Same location. Apple Maps, left. Google Maps, right.
So how bad is Apple Maps?
There are Tumblr blogs and Twitter accounts dedicated to how bad Apple Maps is. I thought they were funny and not a big deal -- at first. But then I stepped out over the weekend doing my usual stuff (going to work, meeting friends, traveling) and found out just how hampered my iPhone had become.
I live in London. It's the biggest city in the UK. It's one of the capitals of the world that tens of millions of travelers and tourists pass through every year -- not to mention the 10 million people who live here -- and Apple Maps hardly functions here. This is in the biggest, most important city in the UK. Now think about the smaller cities around the country where Apple's data providers have misplaced entire airports, or located villages miles from where they should be.
Let me give you an example: today I was in central London and I ran a series of searches on my iPhone 4S in Apple Maps. Every single search query I entered either turned up no results or misplaced results. I was meeting a friend at Circus Space, which I know is somewhere in the Shoreditch (east) area of London, but Apple Maps showed it was located across the city on the west side.
Moving on, I decided to do a search for O'Neills Pub. O'Neills is a series of chain restaurants in the UK. In London it's hard to walk for 10 minutes without passing one. When I did the search, Apple Maps showed only three locations (two of them wrong) and all miles from where I was (and where a majority of O'Neills are).
I then tested Maps again by searching for "Pret," a series of popular sandwich eateries in London. Pret is even more ubiquitous than O'Neills. Apple Maps returned half-baked results -- only showing me three in the area and totally missing the one I was standing two feet away from.
There should be a Pret where the blue arrow is pointing. I know because I was standing right next to it (and even took a photo of it).
I've got friends coming to London next month to visit me and over the summer I've been telling them that no matter what they do they need to bring an unlocked iPhone with them because it'll make navigating London so much easier. But now, that won't be the case anymore. Using Apple's Maps on their iPhone is just going to get them lost in London.
But this isn't just about London (although, Apple, how hard is it to use Tube icons for tube stations like Google, Bing and Yahoo do?). Apple Maps data is horrible across Europe and Asia. My friend from Singapore was visiting London this weekend and we were exploring the new features of iOS 6 together on our iPhones. Within 30 seconds of using Apple Maps to check out his home city of Singapore it was obvious (and somewhat shocking to him) just how misplaced things were. This doesn't bode well for Apple and their hopes of continued expansion in Asia.
[Mike's fellow Brit and former TUAW contributor Nik Fletcher is visiting the US at the moment, and noted on Sunday's Talkcast that he had to throw in the towel on iOS 6 Maps during his first day walking around New York City. He ended up searching for sights and destinations using his wife's un-upgraded iPhone instead. –Ed.]
Now to be fair, some people don't have a problem with the new Maps. Indeed, the turn-by-turn directions are very nice, as are the 3D views. But the people saying the new Maps is just fine seem to live in the suburbs of American cities where they rarely use Maps on a daily basis (they only drive from home to work or home to the grocery store or places they already know), or they live in smaller cities where they know where most things are already. However, if you live in a major city or are a business traveler Maps is probably the most important app on your phone. And the fact that you can't trust it anymore and it doesn't work as it should is devastating.
Why this is such a big deal
In the five years since Apple introduced the first iPhone, mobile maps in our pockets have become a major selling point and a necessary feature for any smartphone. Depending on what study you read, mobile mapping is the number one or number two most-used feature on smartphones (ahead of surfing the web, texting and calling). And Apple, a company known for ease of use and putting their users first was at the top of the pack. The company had the foresight to work with Google, the best mapper in the world, since the first iPhone OS.
That's changed in the years since. Apple and Google don't like each other now. It didn't change because Google said, "We're out of here." It's because Apple said, "You're not giving us what we need. We're doing it without you. See ya." As noted above, Google wasn't willing to allow iOS to offer turn-by-turn navigation on Apple's terms, and perhaps the search company was insisting on more access to user data than Apple was willing to give. But negotiations go both ways, and maybe three years ago Apple thought this would be easier than it is -- or that users would be more forgiving than they are.
Maps on a smartphone are a necessity. But maps are only as good as their accuracy, the depth of their data and the ability to search for that data. Apple Maps handles direct addresses (full address with ZIP or post-code) pretty well, but available data (businesses, restaurants, etc.) and search are horrible.
How is Apple's mapping technique different than Google's mapping technique?
The reason Google Maps is so much better than Apple Maps is because of the amount of time each company has invested into mapping, how they cull their data and the resources they've put behind the problem.
Apple got into the mapping game in the late 2000s when it started buying up companies in the field. It then took technology and data from these separate companies, leased data from about 20 other companies and threw that all together into their new Maps app.
When Google started mapping almost 10 years ago, it originally went the route Apple is going now: buy up small companies, merge all the different sets of data and just hope things work. However, Google soon found out that that was the wrong way to create reliable maps. So Google started mapping from scratch, scouring the earth with Google Street View cars, constantly refining data and integrating its core strength -- search -- into Maps. The result is arguably the best non-military map of the world that's ever existed.
Another reason Google was able to quickly build the best mapping system ever is because it had, at its peak, nearly 7,000 people working on Google Maps. That's certainly a much bigger field force than Apple has working on maps, yet both companies are trying to cover the same planet.
I'll tell you the analogy I used with a friend today when she asked me why Apple Maps is inferior to Google Maps: if Maps were a novel, Google would write its book from line one on page one, refining the prose along the way, and only stop when it reached the last period on the last page. Google would write the book through completely, telling the entire story as best as possible. Google's writers would be Proust and Tolstoy and Hemingway.
Apple's book, on the other hand, would be cut and pasted together from 20 other already written books (fiction, non-fiction, Sears catalogs from 1993), hoping overlays matched and not caring if the editor turned on spellcheck or not. The editor of Apple's book would be E.L. James.
How Apple can fix this mess (and Google's stand-alone iOS Maps app).
It can't. Well, not anytime soon. It took Google seven years and thousands of people to build up a good mapping service. Apple is not going to fix its Maps in the next three or even 12 months. It's not likely anyway. And what actually scares me is Apple Maps wasn't just thrown together in the last year. It's the result of already at least three years of work and it's still horrible. It's still an alpha product.
So no, Apple is not going to fix this any time soon. I mean, we're talking about correctly mapping the entire planet here. That's going to take a lot of time and a lot of manpower. So, if you rely on Maps, I hate to tell you this, but don't think iOS 6.1 in January is going to get Apple's Maps close to the level that Google Maps hit on the iPhone even back in 2007. If you ask me, it hardly competes with MapQuest in 1995.
But just because Apple can't fix this mess soon doesn't mean it can't fix this mess faster. Apple can tackle this in one of two ways: 1) Money and manpower. 2) Google.
Apple has almost $120 billion in the bank. Everyone on Wall Street says Apple can't possibly ever begin to spend that money. Well, now it can. And it needs to, because the "It just works" mantra of the iPhone is very much on the line.
What Apple needs to do is take a chunk of its cash hoard (5 percent? 10 percent? Multiple billions.) and throw it into mapping. Hire the talent and build the fleet to start replicating Google's street-level intelligence, at least in the major cities. Then hire lots and lots of mapping engineers. Give the Google team members a call and offer to double their salary if they jump ship and come work for you -- in fact, it looks like this may already be happening.
But even if Apple throws $12 billion at the mapping problem, it's still going to take time to fix (though not as long). In the meantime what Apple really needs to do is crawl back to Google.
No, Apple isn't going to get rid of the new Maps. The company's got too much pride for that (and maybe one day, some years from now, Apple's maps will have grown in to something much better than Google Maps). But until then, for the users' sake, Apple needs to get Google Maps back on the iPhone for those who want it.
For some users, the Google Maps web app usable in Safari may be a reasonable workaround for the faults in the dedicated iOS Maps app. Unfortunately, for me it's just not a substitute. If you combine it with Google's Search app, it's not horrendous -- it's just very inconvenient. There are now many, many more taps to do the same thing that the native Maps app can do quickly.
Then there's the hypothetical standalone Google Maps app for iOS. Except that it's not hypothetical.
Two high-level sources inside Google have confirmed to me that the app exists. Where the employees disagree is on the status of the app. One tells me that Google has sent the app to Apple for approval, but Apple is just sitting on it. The other tells me that he believes Google has yet to put the finishing touches on the app and has not submitted it to Apple. But either way, it's a real thing.
If Apple still respects its users and really cares about the user experience, like I suspect it does, the company will approve the Google Maps iOS app right away and without further delay. And if Google has yet to submit it, then Tim Cook needs to get on the phone and call Larry Page today and tell him to do so. This is no time to let pride get in the way.
Oh, and the statement Apple released a few days ago saying "Maps is a cloud-based solution and the more people use it, the better it will get" is a cop out. A necessary feature like Maps shouldn't be rolled out until it works relatively well; if I reported every Apple Maps mistake in London (like the app allows you to do) I would need to give up my job and personal life because there's just not enough time in the day to correct all of the Maps mistakes in my area and still live my life.
When Apple released that statement, I wrote "Some people have called Apple's Maps the company's 'Vista' moment. Though I am quite annoyed by the downgrade, I liken Apple's Maps more to iMovie '08. That's when Apple totally revamped iMovie and turned it into the start of something better, but it didn't start surpassing the old iMovie until the next iteration of the new app."
Boy, was I wrong. After a weekend of really using them, the current state of Apple's Maps is way worse than Vista.
Why I'm going to Samsung
You never miss anything -- and realize how heavily you rely on it -- until it's gone. That's the case with Apple Maps. Until my first full weekend of usage of Apple's new Maps in iOS 6, I didn't realize just how heavily I relied on Google Maps on my iPhone in my daily life. Whenever I needed to find anything in London, it was just there, at my fingertips. Now it's not.
I can live with sometimes spotty iCloud email or a not fully baked Siri, but as it turns out I can't live without reliable maps, not when I live in a major metropolitan area and frequently travel to other European cities. And as I said, even if Apple throws billions of dollars at Maps, it's still going to take a lot of time to fix.
What's the most difficult about Maps in iOS 6 is the loss of faith. Now I never know if something I'm looking for really might be close to me, but I'm just not seeing it -- or if something that Maps says is there will actually be there, which can theoretically go beyond inconvenient to dangerous. True, the browser version of Google Maps is there, but it's an inferior experience; it's slow, clunky and doesn't integrate across the OS like the native Maps does. For me, knowing that Maps is my "killer app," it's just not good enough.
Don't get me wrong, I think Samsung has blatantly ripped Apple off, but that also means its got the best copy of the iPhone out there. And it uses Google Maps -- something I trust implicitly. I don't like having to print out maps before I leave the house -- like I had to today -- so I know without a doubt that I can get to the place I need to go. My phone should be able to do that. The iPhone no longer dependably does. Samsung's phones and Google Maps can.
This, of course, is another problem for Apple. The company just gave Android its biggest selling point ever: "We have maps that work. We have maps that you can trust."
I didn't cancel my iPhone 5 order lightly. It hurt to do so. But I did it for the same reason I originally went with Apple products years ago -- they "just work." The iPhone 5's maps no longer "just work." So that phone is not the best choice for me any longer.
It's a shame too, because I was loaned an iPhone 5 for 24 hours on Saturday and it literally is a thing of true beauty. Hands down, it is the best designed phone ever. It's light and thin and fast and beautiful. But it doesn't have a critical feature that I rely on anymore.
So, what should you do?
If you like iOS and the iPhone and don't depend on Maps as your "killer app," by all means, stay with the iPhone. If the browser version of Google Maps, or one of the third-party nav or search apps, works for you then don't sweat it. I know I'll still be using all of Apple's other products -- because they still "just work." And if Apple allows Google Maps in the App Store, I'll jump ship back to the iPhone 5.
But if you rely heavily on Maps -- especially if you live outside of America or travel a lot -- you might want to seriously think about whether you can live with iOS 6's Maps. If not, Android is now the main game in town that has Google Maps.
Either way, let me know how you feel about Apple's Maps in the comments below or hit me up on Twitter (@michaelgrothaus) if you want to recommend a good Samsung phone for me.
I've got friends coming to London next month to visit me and over the summer I've been telling them that no matter what they do they need to bring an iPhone with them because it'll make navigating London so much easier. But now, their iPhone is just going to get them lost.
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