Apple Maps: one year on

21st Sep 2013 | 12:01

Apple Maps: one year on

Does the latest Maps have what it takes to win you back?

This time last year, Apple told Google to get lost: from iOS 6 onwards, Apple would provide its own mapping app.

You can imagine the snickers at Google HQ when the launch of Apple-powered Maps proved to be a disaster: 3D maps appeared to have suffered terrible disasters, entire towns disappeared and the maps appeared to be so error-prone that Apple ended up in the humiliating position of urging customers to use rivals' applications.

The debacle saw the exit of mapping team head Richard Williamson and iOS senior vice president Scott Forstall, and by December 2012 we were all delightedly installing the new standalone Google Maps app and relegating the Apple one to our "crapple" folders.

Is Maps still lost?

Why Google had to go

Apple's decision, we suspect, was motivated more by a desire to boot Google off iOS than a desire to make the world's best mapping service. Apple likes to control the technologies that matter to it, and location awareness is important for the future - not just in Maps but in other apps such as Reminders and Siri.

Reports suggest that Google was looking for a bit more user data than Apple was comfortable with and that Google wouldn't give Apple voice-controlled turn-by-turn directions.

And of course the happy relationship between Apple and Google had turned into something more combative when Google launched Android as a direct competitor to the iPhone.

What Maps got right - and wrong

Making maps is tough, and as Apple discovered, there's a lot more to it than just buying in some mapping data and making it look nice.

Apple licensed its core maps from TomTom, which acquired the Google Map-assisting TeleAtlas mapping service in 2008. TomTom's core business is satellite navigation, and while there were plenty of errors - no mapping system is ever perfect - most people found the driving directions were very good.

Apple Maps

But there's more to mapping than roads, and that's where Apple Maps went wrong. Many of us use maps to find particular businesses and points of interest, and the data Apple had for that wasn't very good.

It was old, and it was often inaccurate: in the UK it listed long-dead retail chains and located enormous superstores in peoples' back gardens while failing to find businesses that had been operating for years. According to TomTom, "they had so many different sources of data that they were trying to merge all in one application. It didn't work out."

Developers did warn Apple about this, but Apple either didn't take them seriously or felt it could get away with shipping a less than perfect product.

Apple has continually updated its maps since the launch of iOS, adding improved satellite imagery and turn-by-turn navigation for more cities, but it's chasing a moving target: Google Maps not only had a head start, but it has been updating constantly too.

Maps in iOS 7 and Mavericks

We've got good news and bad news about the latest iteration of Maps: it's better, but it isn't there yet. We were able to replicate multiple iOS 6 mapping issues such as old data and incorrectly labelled businesses in the UK version of iOS 7, and while it isn't as bad as it's been painted, the search is often useless.

The whole experience is notably inferior to Google Maps or third-party navigation apps from the likes of TomTom. Gizmodo put it very well in a headline: "Apple Maps Are Getting Slightly Less Crappy In iOS 7".

Apple Maps

That doesn't mean it hasn't been improved, though. Maps now has a full-screen mode and a night mode, there are turn-by-turn directions for pedestrians, you can specify whether walking or driving should be the default for directions, and you can now look around the route by pinching and zooming to see more or less detail. There are improved satellite images too.

iOS 7's Maps also get another new feature: if you allow it, it will use the Frequent Locations feature, which records your most commonly visited places, and correlate it with your Apple ID to work out where you live.

The data, which Apple promises will only be retained in anonymous form, will be used to improve Maps' accuracy. It's likely that iOS in the Car will have similar data collection.

Apple Maps

Maps is increasingly integrated in OS X, too, with the incoming Mavericks using Maps for locations in Mail, Calendar and Contacts.

Mavericks gets a desktop version of the Maps app as well, and you'll be able to sync locations from your Mac to your iPhone or iPad and vice versa. Apple is hoping for a virtuous circle here: the more people use Maps, submit data and report problems, the more accurate Apple can make it.

Putting money where Maps is

Apple made two big mistakes with Maps: it launched too early, and it didn't give the project sufficient resources. It can't do much about the former but it's definitely learned its lesson with the latter: over the last year, Apple has been putting its money where its maps are.

It has hired multiple "Maps Ground Truth Managers", whose role is to improve Maps' accuracy. It bought HopStop, which specialised in public transport mapping and information, and Embark, which does much the same. It also bought indoor mapping company WifiSLAM and the crowdsourced data firm Locationary, whose business was based on ensuring businesses' entries in mapping services were accurate.

Apple Maps

Apple has even developed a chip to make Maps better. The new M7 motion co-processor, introduced this month in the iPhone 5s, isn't just for fitness apps. Apple didn't mention it in the keynote but in its website blurb for the M7 it says: "M7 knows when you're walking, running, or even driving. For example, Maps switches from driving to walking turn-by-turn navigation if, say, you park and continue on foot."

It knows if you're in a vehicle or if you're on foot, and it could easily tell Maps if you're driving at 100mph on a road Maps thinks is a lake. According to 9to5Mac.com, it might even help you find your car when you park it by remembering your location automatically.

The maps, then, are getting better - but Apple Maps' biggest challenge might be persuading people that that's the case.

Thanks to endless coverage and parodies such as Mad Magazine's superb fake New Yorker cover, an awful lot of people associate Apple's Maps with unreliability: if you type "Apple Maps is" into Google UK, the first three autocompletes are "is terrible", "issues" and "is rubbish". Apple can fix its data. Can it fix that?

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