Software

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.