Who benefits from iOS6's crappy maps?

The classic criticism that thoughtless Apple haters use against the company is that it makes products that are pretty but dumb. Usually those criticisms are by people who don't understand the value of a comprehensible user experience, frustrated by the reality that many people will eagerly trade the open-ended technologies of competitors for the simple and satisfying experience that Apple provides.

But this time, they're right: Apple's made a new product that actually is pretty but dumb. Worse, they've used their platform dominance to privilege their own app over a competitor's offering, even though it's a worse experience for users. This is the new Maps in iOS 6.

Walking Alone

Apple's used Google's mapping features since it introduced iOS with the original iPhone and iPod touch in 2007. Google provided the actual tiled images that make up the maps, search for venues on the maps, and directions to destinations by car, transit or walking.

Apple started acquiring mapping companies a few years ago, pursuing their typical path of trying to own the entire technology platform for critical features, both so they could exert business control over the technology and so that they could improve the experience. (iOS maps had lagged behind in implementing new Google Maps features like turn-by-turn directions and vector-based infinitely zoomable maps due to the tension between the companies after Google launched its Android mobile OS.)

But with iOS 6, Apple decided it was time to rip off the band-aid and replace Google's maps with their own. Not at all a surprise, given the company's history of controlling critical areas of functionality on its platforms. But what is surprising is that the user experience got worse.

Wrong Way

I've been using iOS 6 for a few months, and initially chalked up the problems I'd had to likely bugs that would be worked out as the software matured. Unfortunately, now that we all have access to the release version of iOS 6, it's evident that fundamental mapping features like venue search and directions are significantly worse than in the Google versions.

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Here in Manhattan, where I live, basic search by building names is profoundly degraded in Apple's maps search. "Bloomberg" doesn't find the Bloomberg Tower; on Google Maps it's the first result. Searching for its address "731 Lexington Avenue" yields that address on Lexington Avenue in Brooklyn. It's fine to think that perhaps I wanted the address in Bed-Stuy, but even appending "NY, NY" or "Manhattan, NY" still yields the Brooklyn address. Google maps has none of these comprehension issues. I understand this is due to Apple partnering with Tom Tom, whose maps are considered to be lower in quality than other players like Nokia, but I'm not informed enough to say with certainty whether that's the case.

Similar troubles plague the directions and routing features for drivers. I'd tried the driving maps for everywhere from the New Jersey suburbs to rural Mexico and found out-of-date road information, impossible directions and a general level of unreliability that I never recall seeing from Google maps, even when it first launched. I have only used the walking directions in Manhattan where Apple's new maps have worked fine, but in fairness, it's almost impossible to screw up walking directions when you're on the grid in Manhattan.

And then there's transit. While transit maps were the subject of some misinformation when they were originally removed during the iOS 6 beta releases, the fundamental truth is that, out of the box, Apple's maps have no transit features. One could argue that Apple's ostensible strategy of supporting lots of local transit apps that plug in to the primary maps experience is more scalable, and certainly Apple can offer a credible defense that collecting all of the non-standard data that powers local transit is unreasonably costly. Given that Apple has a bigger cash hoard than the vast majority of countries, it seems as if this is more an issue of priorities than resource constraints.

Whatever the case, I was happy to support the OpenPlans Kickstarter campaign to bring an open source-based transit experience to iOS 6. I hope it gets traction and becomes widely deployed on iOS 6 devices, both to improve the maps experience of users and so that this kind of functionality can be more driven by a community rather than Apple's whims.

There are other opportunities, too — iOS 6's abysmal maps should provide a real opportunity for apps like Foursquare which have great local search; I've been using Foursquare for almost all of my venue search and local searching since upgrading to iOS 6 and it's helped me out every time the native iOS 6 app let me down.

Why It Matters

Obviously, Apple's going to fix as many of these bugs as they can. I'm not pretending they're incompetent or somehow want to deny people access to good maps on mobile devices. But the simple fact is: When you buy an iOS 6 device, you get a worse experience for search and no ability to get transit directions out of the box, both of which are significant downgrades from iOS 5. Apple's taken features away (critics would say "crippled") from apps before, typically during major platform changes or when rethinking the fundamental architecture of an app. But in almost every one of those transitions, they've provided a transition period or staged upgrade path that didn't force users to bear the brunt of the new platform's weaknesses.

Apple made this maps change despite its shortcomings because they put their own priorities for corporate strategy ahead of user experience. That's a huge change for Apple in the post-iPod era, where they've built so much of their value by doing the hard work as a company so that things could be easy for users. I'm not suggesting (yet) that this is a pattern, and that Apple will start to regularly compromise its user experiences in order to focus on its squabbles with other tech titans. But history shows that dominant players in every era of operating system history have reached a turning point where they shift from the user experience and customer benefits which earned them their dominance to platform integration efforts which are primarily aimed at boxing out competitors. It'll be interesting to see which direction Apple's maps follow.

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