Tom Simonite

A View from Tom Simonite

Smartphone Makers Can't Afford to Mess up Mapping

Apple’s unpolished maps app has proved just how much smartphone users rely on good directions.

  • September 20, 2012

The new iPhone 5 has triggered many reviewers and gadget fans to ask what features really matter on a smartphone. The reaction to Apple’s upgraded iPhone software, released yesterday to existing iPhone owners, has now provided some firm evidence of one function a phone maker can’t afford to screw up: Maps.

The new software, iOS6, sees Apple deliver on its promise to dump the Google’s Maps app that has been the iPhone’s default since its debut in 2007 (see “Apple Charts New Course on Mobile Maps”). But Apple’s replacement has disappointed many users. People living outside the US seem to have been hit hardest, suffering problems such as one of Tokyo’s largest railway stations disappearing, large towns such as Antwerp in Belgium relocating, and Stratford-upon-Avon, Shakespeare’s birthplace, even disappearing altogether. Many people have also reported problems with directions given by the app, such as their offering a route to the wrong place.

The iOS maps use data from the Open Street Map project, a free resource made by volunteers who map out roads and other features, and by licensing data from other companies such as GPS manufacturer TomTom. But either Apple hasn’t pulled together enough information to match Google’s maps, or hasn’t been able to combine those sources smoothly enough.

The photo-real 3-D imagery that makes it possible to fly your view point around a city’s skyline from all angles, technology acquired when Apple bought C3 in 2011 (see Ultra-Sharp 3-D Maps), has also disappointed. The views are impressive when it works, but when it doesn’t the results are strange, like when this bridge in Boston collapses into wrinkles like a piece of cloth.

It all adds up to a significant problem for Apple, and one that has people comparing them unfavorably with Google, the company that the maps switch was supposed to set at a safe distance. 

Both Apple and Google now face tough decisions.

Apple surely knew it had work still to do on its maps, but now has to figure out how to fix them faster while fighting the bad publicity. Google must decide whether to release an independent version of its maps app into the iTunes store, which would likely be extremely popular, or to let iPhone users sweat and perhaps convince some people to switch to Android phones.

Thanks to Apple’s giant experiment, though, both companies now know for sure just how much smartphone users rely on their mapping apps.

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