Apple Maps, and why you should read multiple reviews

I reviewed Apple’s iOS 6 this week, and one of the areas I focused on was the new Maps app (the Google one is gone, allegedly because Google were being dicks about their mapping API).

It’s an important app, and I set out to see if I could break it. I used a quarter of a tank of diesel trying and failing to confuse the turn-by-turn navigation in and around Glasgow and its suburbs; I deliberately asked it for directions to places where the roads have been significantly changed in recent months; and I threw loads of randomly chosen addresses and businesses at it to see if it got them right.

With a few exceptions – businesses shown in slightly wrong places on the map, one result that was completely wrong – it performed really well. If it knew about the new roundabout they’ve just stuck between Milngavie and Clydebank, then clearly it was safe to assume that it knows where the big stuff is. As I wrote in the piece:

We half expected an app that was just great in America and utterly useless in the UK. We were wrong.

…Maps is a decent app, but we think existing, dedicated sat-nav apps have more finger-friendly UIs and more features, even if they do charge for traffic data – and if you’ve got an iPhone 3GS or 4, those apps are your only option.

Over at the Guardian, technology editor Charles Arthur took a similar approach and came to similar conclusions. Like me, he wrote:

it’s very good. Here we need to distinguish between the maps themselves, and the maps app. The maps don’t have all the highlighting of Google’s, but the amount of detail such as road names seems to me greater… [it] brings feature parity with Android – as does the introduction of turn-by-turn voice navigation, so that your satnav can now play music and make or receive phone calls.

It looks like Charles and I were lucky, because as we’re discovering today the Maps app contains lots of problems. My personal favourite is that it lists Our Price branches; for younger and/or overseas readers, Our Price was a record shop chain that closed almost a decade ago. Some towns are missing altogether; other sensible queries don’t work unless they’re phrased in a specific way (eg “Paddington” doesn’t work; “London Paddington” does); and sometimes the context awareness is broken, so a UK user searching for Christchurch near Bournemouth gets directions to New Zealand.

What’s interesting is that in many cases, it’s the populous areas that have the problems: apparently Leeds is particularly poor. I came to Maps assuming that the big places, such as London, would be perfect, and that if screw-ups were to be found they’d be more likely in more northern and more rural areas – so I went looking for such screw-ups and found they were relatively rare.

It’s clear that Maps has been rushed out, that some of its data is inaccurate and/or ancient, and that it’s going to be a while before it’s as good as Google’s multi-billion dollar mapping system. Apple doesn’t screw up like this very often: the last one like this I can remember is MobileMe, whose unhappy launch led to an unhappy Steve Jobs making the relevant employees very unhappy.

Maps will get better, but the issue demonstrates something important: individual journalists and bloggers can’t cover every conceivable use case for technology products, and sometimes problems don’t emerge until a product has actually been released.

If you’re considering spending lots of money on something, or if an upgrade is replacing a feature you rely upon, it pays to wait.

13 thoughts on “Apple Maps, and why you should read multiple reviews”

  1. Since the only real difference between ios6 and ios5 apps, other than the user interface, which would be the change regardless, is who they purchase their maps from. TomTom, who are an OK satnav manufacturer but don’t have the image database of google, could still provide the navigation but using google’s maps, which are quite obviously far superior. In every location where I’ve had a look, the aerial images are significantly downgraded from google’s and, if you’re an ipad rather than iphone user, you’re not really using the navigation feature, you’re using it as a tablet version of google maps. I can imagine that google earth downloads on ipads will rocket. I’ll certainly use it over the bundled app.

    I know apple want to control the whole thing, from end to end, but this time it really looks like they’ve jumped the gun. Google maps are very good and Nokia are constantly lauded for their effort. Apple have quite firmly secured 3rd place and only managing that because there isn’t really a viable 4th runner.

  2. Talking about this on Twitter, I’m told that TomTom’s map data is great for navigation and rotten for anything else, which might help explain why the maps navigation is fine and other things are less fine.

  3. iOS6 maps is better in some respects, and much worse in others. Satnav mode seems to be pretty handy but the backend needs some work; it was never going to be a match for the Google data.

    Jobs will be turning in his grave. Maps is a long term project that will evolve and improve over time, but they should have soft launched this as a live beta project – or maybe as just a satnav app – while Google maps was available as a 3rd-party app.

    The cynic in me can’t help thinking Google delayed its new Maps app deliberately to maximise Apple’s embarrassment.

    1. I don’t know about Google but I agree entirely about beta: had Apple said “we’re putting this out now because we need lots of people to work with us on this”, as it pretty much did with Siri, there wouldn’t have been a storm. Instead, they’ve pushed an unfinished product out and pretended it’s finished.

      1. >>Instead, they’ve pushed an unfinished product out and pretended it’s finished.

        While removing something that worked perfectly well, which is the really annoying thing.

        I use the maps app on the ipad quite a lot so having satnav functionality that I will never use doesn’t really make up for it.

        1. I use Maps quite a bit on the iPad too. Does the OS upgrade make iTunes less crashy or improve the hopeless music player? If not, on balance, I see no reason to upgrade.

          1. I’ve signed up with Amazon Cloudplayer and am currently uploading everything. Will compare to iTunes Match and, I strongly suspect, prefer it.

            Why does the world’s largest record company make such a shite record player?

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