Why Apple Maps Won't Get Better Anytime Soon

Apple's Maps are not off to a good start. They're getting killed by critics and users alike. And rightly so! They don't hold their own against last generation's Google Maps on iOS 5. And what's worse for Apple and its fans? Things probably won't be getting better anytime soon.

What Apple Maps Gets Wrong

Maps are tough. They're not just about dumping data onto vector graphic maps and making it look pretty. Most mapping systems are built from a few huge data sets that are constantly being optimised and updated. But Apple's maps — as millions of iPhone 5 buyers have found out — are not updated and they are certainly not optimised. They don't know that asking for "heathrow" is absolutely a question about the airport in London.

Those are complicated decisions for an app to make, but they're also the kind of stuff that you pick up over time. Google Maps wasn't always as awesome as it is now. It had plenty of screwups along the way. And while Apple can certainly take some cues from how Google runs its ship, a lot of the stuff it's screwing up, like sending drivers to roads that have been closed for years, or telling you you've arrived at your destination in the middle of a freeway, are the kind of thing that take years of data collection to correct and fine-tune.

There are some funny mistakes, like incorrect business listings, that will be fixed quickly as iOS 6 users report their issues back to the Cupertino mothership. But there are deeper, systemic problems with Apple that can only be solved with time. Lots and lots, of time. Get comfy.

What Google Does Right

Google's map collecting methods are famous. Street View cars! Street View backpacks! Google planes! Wi-Fi data collection scandals! But it's actually not as simple as putting someone in a Google car with a camera, driving around and mapping the world.

Google Maps actually uses cartographic data from a variety of sources. Much is TIGER data from the US Census bureau, while some is also likely from the US Geological Survey. Google's cars are actually more supplemental than anything else. But that's just the raw data. The easy part. The rest of it — and the stuff Apple gets so wrong right now — is far more nuanced.

Here's an excerpt from the Atlantic's look into how Google's mapping sausage is made:

"So you want to make a map," Weiss-Malik tells me as we sit down in front of a massive monitor. "There are a couple of steps. You acquire data through partners. You do a bunch of engineering on that data to get it into the right format and conflate it with other sources of data, and then you do a bunch of operations, which is what this tool is about, to hand massage the data. And out the other end pops something that is higher quality than the sum of its parts."

So perhaps predictably, Google's role in mapping becomes less about adventure and exploration than organisation and refinement. Google's making sense of other people's data, ordering neatly a mess of unruly data sets. Typical, really.

But also consider things like Google MapMaker. It's responsible for allowing people in 183 countries, many of which didn't have access to digital map making services, to alter the data that Google has for their areas. That means they can create deeply detailed data for locales that other services can't get to. And while those cars may not be fundamental, they do a hell of a lot of backlog work.

It's also worth noting that Google's been at it for at least seven years. That's quite a head start.

So How Far Behind Is Apple?

It's not quite as grim as it sounds, though; iOS 6 may only be a few days old, but Apple's already been working on maps for a while. It bought Placebase way back in 2009, a company which at the time a that took mapping data from other sources and offered it up to customers in a more digestible package. It even customised and overlaid information about locations and destinations, a lot like Google Maps does. A year after that, Apple bought up Poly9, which was billed as a small-footprint Google Earth. And then last year it bought C3 Technologies, which has some beautiful demos of 3D flyover maps, but has proven, erm, inconsistent.

Clearly those aren't enough to take on the Google mapping juggernaut on their own which is why Apple opted to patch the holes in its Maps foundation with a few ringers. That includes TomTom (you've heard of them), which wholly owns TeleAtlas, which in turn powered all of Google's mapping data until 2009. In fact, it continued to power Google Maps in Europe until December of last year.

TeleAtlas collects data in a lot of the same ways Google does today. It's even got "mobile mapping vans" that drive around and use cameras, laser range-finders and GPS to map out where they drive. Sound familiar? Then again, there's a reason Google ditched it in favour of an in-house solution.

Apple has also very gingerly dipped its toes into the open source waters, using OpenStreetMap data for iPhoto. It's also using some OSM data in iOS 6 as well, though it appears to be more of a peripheral source, like the smaller, local map data sets both it and Google use. Ironically, if Apple had gone with OSM from the start, its Maps app would probably be in much better shape than it is today.

So the good news is that yes, Apple has stuck a load of time and money and effort into this thing. It's committed. The bad news? Apple has stuck a load of time and money and effort into this thing, and it's still pretty bad.

Get Used to It

If making a usable, reliable mapping system is primarily about organisation, then there's maybe no one better suited to it than Google. But that doesn't mean Apple can't or won't catch up. It will get better. It has to. But that kind of improvement takes time.

Apple's road to wellness is relatively simple: It has to get better foreign data partners, for one. It's got to gather information from the millions and millions of iPhones and iPads that are out there (a huge advantage) about what things are actually where. And for that matter, it needs its own version of MapMaker to turn embarrassing Tumblrs into useful user-generated data.

Simple, though, isn't fast. Those deals take time to put in place, and even with an unprecedented number of iOS devices beaming back correct information, it could take years to make Maps whole.

Even quick fix solutions for Apple, however farfetched, won't happen overnight. That goes for a high profile acquisition like Garmin, or Nokia's maps division if it goes under and Microsoft does not buy it whole, or anything else that could possibly inject an instantaneous shot of competence into Apple Maps. And that's if any of those things were remotely likely to happen. They're not.

Will a Google Maps iOS app save you? A little. But even if Google becomes a knight in GPS armour, you'll still likely be stuck using Apple for turn-by-turn navigation, as Google Maps functionality wouldn't extend to third party apps. Ditto Waze or Navigon or any other third-party map app already available. Some are good, some aren't; some are expensive, some aren't; but none are integrated as seamlessly as first party software, like Android's Navigation and Windows Phone's Nokia Maps are.

So yes, Apple's going to fix this. It has to. Maybe it wrangles up more and better partners and launches the fleet of Jonathan Ive-designed Apple View cars. But that almost definitely won't make it into an iOS 6 update. Or into iOS 7 or iOS 8, for that matter. For now, you should get cosy with the idea that your first party iPhone maps might just drive you off the side of a bridge.


Comments

    apple and google Wil merge within the next five years!

      That would actually be awesome.

        I'd rather Apple doesn't merge with a glorified search company hell bent on tracking me across the web.

      and steve jobs will turn in his grave.

        At that point we wrap him in a coil and harvest clean energy -

        http://dilbert.com/strips/comic/2004-07-28/

    "even if Google becomes a knight in GPS armour, you’ll still likely be stuck using Apple for turn-by-turn navigation"

    I wouldn't be so sure on that one. If they were/are to provide a mapping solution to iOS, why hold back the turn by turn part? If it's to 'sell Android devices', then why release an iOS mapping application at all?

      To remind users how sometimes having apple decide everything for you is not always the best idea?

      You're giving potential customers a sample of your product, but if they want all the features that Google maps can offer (turn by turn navigation) then you need to use an android device. Makes sense to me.

    Apple is like a boa constrictor. Each time you breath it's grip on you becomes tighter but its normally not good for you.

    Only difference is people flock to Apple where as normally being suffocated is seen by animals as a bad thing

      dramatic much. its a company. and we are talking about a maps feature...on a phone.

      "normally not good for you" so there are times when being suffocated by a boa constrictor IS good for you?

        There's a David Carradine joke in here somewhere. It may even be an apt metaphor for the scenario outright.

          haha yes worked out well for Michael Hutchence too

      That's a lot less profound than you probably wanted it to sound.

    To be honest I have used it quite a few times out of curiosity and also necessity and I did not find it all that bad. The biggest issue I came across was labels for businesses out of date (Ampol Service Stations anyone?) but the roads and actual geography of the maps were accurate around Sydney. Maybe I just got lucky.
    Also, does anyone remember when Google launched Maps all those years ago? Pretty much looked like apple maps do now. The basics and not much else. Although they rapidly got better they started out about the same.
    Now having said all that....I might just bookmark google maps through the browser....just in case.

      No,no Google had street view and turn by turn when they launched google maps too, didn't.'cha'know

      :-/ sarcasm intended

      Ya, Maps sucks ATM compared to google, Apple have had two years to fcuk it up, google took ten... Time will tell, but google maps was AWFUL at first too

        I think the important thing to remember is that Google maps is great now and that was the standard in iOS5, but Apple users around the world are being asked to downgrade into a beta product years from the same standard.

    Apple's greed catches up with them, this is the beginning of the end. They used to pride them selves on functionality and practically..Jobs is burning in his grave somewhere not found on ios6

    ha ha, it was inevitable. Apple going down again, this time on maps. can you imagine their boardroom meetings - "what should we do now", "i don't know, let's make some map stuff, that's what google did", "anything better? what about business apps?", "na, i think its more important we make some maps" "maybe we can charge people $99 to list their business there instead of free on google"

    Just time, and everyone will wake up and say, "why are we developing for a platform where we have to first buy an apple just to develop?" believe me, we didn't choose to develop for apple because we needed apple technology to develop for it, and we had linux computers (since we're not exactly rich and we're very honest).

      this is irrelevant to the maps app problem

        This comment has been deemed inappropriate and has been deleted.

    It's called alternatives. There's plenty of GPS apps on the app store that already offer turn-by-turn. I personally use the Whereis app which is free.

    I was never thrilled with the Google app anyway and used the Google maps from the browser which seemed to be better. The advantage is you can save your route and look at it on any computer.
    I never used the iphone as a turn by turn as it would shut down on the sun lit dashboard and I used a real GPS which seems to be hardened to the heat.

    Pride commeth before a fall

    Still true today

    It's worth remembering that Google Maps was a browser-based solution LONG before appification. It started life as an electronic street directory people used to plan a trip or locate something they'd have to travel too. The iOS app is a an off-shoot of a lager platform.

    The real issue for Apple in this case is two-fold. One is that the 4-year-old off-shoot that they adapted for iOS is so significantly superior to the solution they developed from scratch. Two is that this is the second release in a row (following on from Siri) that flies completely in the face of their "it just works" philosophy. That should be a concern to any Apple user.

      I agree with sparhawk0.... The biggest issue for apple is that they could be hurting their brand by making these blunders, and for apple, brand is everything. Maps on phones are a big deal now and its true that all maps applications have teething problems, but I don't know if the typical iphone user will buy teething problems. It's an iphone and a apple product. It sells on style and that "it just works".

      I personally don't know how they can have this product in this state for the next few months. If I was apple I'd be doing some serious emergency stuff (negotiations with google??). But I can't for the life of me understand why they would even risk releasing this app if it is bad as everyone says.

      All in all every month you don't make it BETTER than google maps it is hurting their brand.

        Jobs is gone and the corporate shareholders are ruling the roost: "Get it out, get it out now, no one will care if its beta software so long as we fix it within a year or so".

          If you think Apple listens to anyone outside the company then you're really misguided.

            change corporate shareholders to Apple's Board and April's comment is true. Without a strong personality like Jobs holding back corporate culture, they will follow the 'get it out' mentality. And the board is not 'outside the company'.

    You can overcome the street navigation issue by sticking with Google Maps.

    Worst problem is that the inaccuracy of AppleMaps makes one of Apple's key features - Find My iPhone, next to useless.

    I've been using it and it loads so much faster than google maps ever did, so far has been 100% accurate around Brisbane. Maybe I'm one of the lucky ones.

    In Australia, I use Whereis for my turn-by-turn. It's free and Whereis is like MapQuest used to be for the US.

    Waze is heaps better for car-based navigation and has been great at avoiding collisions/traffic. Google maps is still available via maps.google.com on your browser. Whereis is quite accurate and free.

    Apple's maps are very ordinary but I never really used the Maps app anyway.

    More reason to jailbreak and get Google Maps back (which will happen very quickly) and just wait until maps gets better in iOS12

    The Maps App in iOS6 in Australia is woeful...it's out of date; doesn't show street numbers - even though it apparently knows them; it doesn't show suburb names - just municipalities which are a WOFTAM - even though it knows which suburb you are in. It zooms out for long distance legs in routes...but it doesn't zoom back in for much needed turn detail.
    Basically it is an ill -conceived hack not ready for market. It's in the same class as the woeful Reminders app which looks and performs like a summer project hack and the equally woeful Passbook. Apple needs to stop foisting half-finished crap onto its users and start getting professional.

    By claiming that Apple should take cues from Google it reads like you are suggesting that Apple infringe on Google IP.

      IP and mapping solutions aren't exactly married - I think the point made is that Google is good at handling and processing huge data sets, and has had a few years to perfect the product.

      I'd be curious to know what, if any, important or enforceable patents are still fundamental in making gMaps a unique / more valuable service. This really seems like a time and effort issue.

        Are you saying that Google maps works relatively well only because Google has worked on it and not because of any specific advancements that they might have made in the field?

    Maps data is rubbish... But UI wise it's pretty good. Vectors! And smooth non jerky turn by turn.

      Erm... Google Maps on Android has vectors and non-jerky turn-by-turn too.

        No it doesn't. It's bitmap, not vector.

          Interestingly enough, I'm pretty sure Nokia Maps (second-best to Google, in most cases) used to be vector but has changed to bitmap. I'm not sure why.

            Fast processing maybe? -which would also save power.
            Vector art has smaller file sizes but greater processor load because the image has to be built up, and that increases a lot when you have greater detail on screen at once. You'd think it wouldn't really matter since processors these days are so fast and can build up super complex 3D scenes in games with ease... but strangely all those issues with 2D vectors still remain.

    More reason to get android with google maps and gps.

    I understand the problems with iOS6 maps and agree some of them are pretty bad, but for me personally, the new maps is better as the vector-based nature makes it operate so much faster and with less reliance on my data reception.

    Funny, apart from no street view, Apple maps are no worse. Gaps on iOS never had 3D mapping or turn by turn directions. Even as I speak, on google maps, there is a street at the end of mine, that just does not exist. It's been that way for 6 years and hasn't been corrected. Also the overhead satellite shots of my area are 3 years old. On Apple maps it shows buildings just being built under a year ago. I think this is being used as an excuse to bash Apple without evidence. As far as I'm concerned, it works fine. He'll, I can even see the MCG in 3D flyover in incredible detail. Never had that on Gmaps.

      Thankyou Kroo! Same thing here! Looking at houses recently, I realised how unreliable street numbers are in Google Maps. I found myself using them alongside whereis to get proper numbers. There's all sorts of things wrong with all mapping software.

      Apart from Street View not being there any more, I have no problem with Apple Maps. I don't think it's necessarily better, per se, although the vector is faster and uses less data. But half the 'issues' I've seen people point out, are things I've encountered on Google Maps many, many times!

      That said, the 3D thing seems entirely useless to me. I'd much rather Street View. It actually has a use.

    I love how when a new first release iOS comes out everyone instantly finds all the problems and they blame apple for not seeing the mistakes. I think apple releases its OS's knowing there are heaps of flaws on purpose. They have probably been working on 6.0.1 for the last couple of months ironing out the kinks but they all the user feedback for future updates.

      Either that or they should stop using Cupertino , California to roadtest all their phones and apps. Its one of the most internet connected,satellite image loaded places there is. Send your phones to Australia for testing then you'd see ALL the flaws

    I live in the middle of nowhere, yet in Apple maps my house is marked as a Royal Copenhagen Ice creamery. WTF Apple, Stop sending hungry people to my house.

    Google maps are no more detailed than Apple maps. A lot of these complaints have been coming from countries where Google has placed focus; our streetviews are 3 years old and our satellite imagery is even worse probably closing in at 5 years old. Apple maps in comparison are not much worse, there are few details missing here and there, but with time these will be fixed.

      Streetview and satellite imagery is a lot more up to date in my area :)

    I live in Sydney. I use the Tom Tom app for my day-to-day navigation. I have had my ipone 5 since Friday (21) and have looked at the maps app for Sydney. Looks as good as Google maps, really miss street view, as that was the feature I used the most on Google.
    In general terms the iPhone 5 is a standout piece of work, I'm sure the maps probs will be fixed, sooner than later. Common sense is all I use, the iPhone Maps app turn-by -turn shows a road adjacent to my house that was turned into a mall some years ago, as did Tom Tom, until I used the Tom Tom notification feature to advise them. It was fixed within two weeks.
    Settle down folks there is more to life than a minor problem in an apple app. If unhappy get a Sammy phone. Or maybe the ones who are bellyaching here already have one. Hmmm?

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