iOS 6 Maps - What Went Wrong?

12/5/2012 9:12:07 AM

Apple Maps was meant to be an improvement on Google Maps, but what went wrong?

With relations between Google (which makes the Android OS) and Apple becoming increasingly strained, it should have come as no surprise that Apple would, at some point, have to drop the Google Maps application from its mobile operating system. That change happened with iOS 6. However the introduction of the new Apple Maps wasn’t quite the success that Apple would have liked it to be; in fact, it’s been something of a PR disaster.

Offering key new features like turn-by-turn navigation, vector graphics and an amazing new Flyover view for zooming around 3D buildings, Apple Maps initially looked like it was going to be a huge improvement over Google Maps. But very quickly iOS 6 upgraders began to notice problems: directions took them the wrong way, a phantom airport appeared near Dublin and Aukland’s main train station appeared to be located in the middle of the sea!

Description: iOS 6 Maps

iOS 6 Maps

Sites like began to spring up showing screen shots of even more Maps faux pas, particularly with the new 3D view and satellite images. Whole towns were obscured by clouds, the famous Brooklyn Bridge seemed to have collapsed and cars looked melted into roads. But worst of all, the maps were inaccurate and often omitted important buildings, roads and rivers.

The New York Times’ David Pogue wrote: “In short, Maps is an appalling first release. It may be the most embarrassing, least usable piece of software Apple has ever unleashed.”

Apple rarely rushes out software that’s as poor as Maps, so what went wrong?

At the launch of the iPhone 5, Apple’s head of iOS, Scott Forstall, confidentially demonstrated the new Maps app giving no indication that it was going to be anything other than wonderful. Indeed, the Apple website described Maps as “The most beautiful, powerful mapping service ever.” Yet within a week that description was changed to, “All in a beautiful vector-based interface that scales and zooms with ease”, and Apple CEO Tim Cook and posted an apology letter on Apple’s website (see overleaf) saying, “We are extremely sorry for the frustration this has caused our customers and we are doing everything we can to make Maps better.”

It seems as though Apple itself was caught by surprise by the inaccuracy of Maps, almost as if it had become too obsessed with the new technologies it incorporated and missed the obvious – that the most important thing about any navigation solution has to be the accuracy of its maps.

Road to nowhere

Apple Maps actually gets some of its mapping data from TomTom, which, if you’ve ever used the system before, you’ll know is very reliable. TomTom has over 30 years of mapping experience, so obviously something got lost in translation when Apple imported the data into its own mapping app.

While there have been obvious technical failures, the big question is why Apple had to ditch the reliable Google Maps in the first place. It’s a long story that stretches back to the days when Google CEO Eric Schmidt occupied a prized place on Apple’s board, in the pre-Android days when Google wasn’t in direct competition with Apple in the mobile space. If you watch the launch of the original iPhone in 2007 on YouTube ( you’ll even see Eric Schmidt sharing the stage with Steve Jobs to introduce Google Maps on the iPhone.

Description: Get Google Maps back on your iPhone and iPad, to some extent at least, by simply bookmarking the website

Get Google Maps back on your iPhone and iPad, to some extent at least, by simply bookmarking the website

“You can’t think about the Internet without thinking about Google”, said Jobs as he introduced Schmidt. In fact the companies were so close at the time that Schmidt even joked about merging them into “Applegoo”.

Fast=forward a couple of years and the Applegoo love fest had turned sour. Schmidt quit the Apple board and Google launched Android, leaving Steve Jobs apoplectic with rage, accusing Google of stealing Apple’s ideas.

“I will spend my last dying breath if I need to, and I will spend every penny of Apple’s $40 billion in the bank, to right this wrong,” Jobs told his biographer Walter Isaacson. “I’m going to destroy Android, because it’s a stolen product. I’m willing to go thermonuclear war on this.”

While both companies are blaming each other of dropping the Google Maps app from iOS 6, the key sticking point seems to have been turn by turn navigation. Google Maps on Android has it, and Apple wanted to incorporate it into iOS 6. Google naturally wasn’t keen to give away one of Android’s key advantages, and it became clear Apple would have to go its own way if it wanted this feature on the iPhone.

New tech

Despite a difficult birth, Apple Maps does have the potential to be great. While Google Maps uses a series of graphical tiles to represents different zoom levels, Apple Maps was built from the ground up to use vector images, so zooming in and out is super smooth. It’s also faster and requires far less data to be delivered over the internet, since processing the different zoom levels can all be done on the phone without having to reload the graphics for each stage.

Description: Brooklyn Bridge on Apple Maps

Brooklyn Bridge on Apple Maps

Street View is still unique to Google Maps though, and there are no plans for Apple to adopt a similar system, which most see as a major disadvantage.

In one sense the Apple Maps fiasco is just a short term problem for Apple. As users report the problems, and they get fixed, Maps will get better and better. We’d expect Maps to be in pretty good shape by this time next year.

But many are left wondering whether Apple should have been so bold about Maps at the launch of the iPhone 5 if they knew that there were so many problems with it. With hindsight it might have been better to announce that it was in beta, and was expected to improve over time after all, that’s what Google seems to do with all its web products.

Google Maps has existed for a good number of years now and with hindsight it seems impossible to expect a brand new mapping application to have the same level of detail and accuracy as such an established product. Perhaps the good news is that Apple Maps is not set in stone; Apple encourages all its users to submit reports of any inaccuracies, so it should improve over time.

And will a Google Maps app ever appear in iOS 6? There are rumours that we’ll get it before the end of the year, but we’d say don’t hold your breath. The rift between Apple and Google is only going to keep on widening from this point forward.

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