Apple makes the left turn at Albuquerque

So Apple has replaced Google Maps with their own application and most of the reviews have been, ah, unkind. The data set isn’t as good as Google’s: there are labeling errors, and there are things shown in the wrong location, and occasionally the imagery in 3-D mode is weird.1

As Mac Rumors notes,

While Apple has been working on its in-house mapping efforts for a number of years as evidenced by a series of acquisitions of small companies working in the market, Google’s mapping services have been live for over seven years, allowing the company to build up massive amounts of data and expertise. Consequently, it should come as no surprise that Apple’s mapping solutions are not as refined as Google’s in many cases, but users have generally been hoping for more from Apple’s public launch.

Absolutely! But that’s unrealistic. We’re forgetting how long and how often Google Maps came up with pretty damn weird responses. When we searched for the Guadalajara Taqueria we knew was a few miles away and it showed us a town in Mexico, or searched for “1212 Illinois Street” in Santa Clara and got shown a Chicago suburb, or got asked in a popup to differentiate between four seemingly identical addresses. Or asked for directions to that teriyaki place in Livermore and were directed to a strip mall on the same street but a quarter-mile away from the right strip mall. (Which still happens if you ask for that teriyaki place in Livermore.) And I swear to God I’ve occasionally gotten popups like “You asked for ‘Ruby’s.’ Did you mean ‘Ruby’s?’”

There are two issues here—modeling errors and data errors—and both of them stem from the incontrovertible truth that this is really hard stuff. It took Google years to get their maps to where they are now and they’re still not perfect. In iOS 6 Maps’ case, the data by and large isn’t Apple’s; the problems that we’re giving Apple crap for mostly stem from their data providers, who have very likely seen their user base increase by an order of magnitude or two literally overnight. It’s remarkable how many bugs you don’t find until that happens to you. This is a risk Apple took by choosing not to license from either company they perceive as being in direct competition with them in the mobile market.2

What’s being ignored, no doubt to the frustration of Apple’s designers, is that the visual design of the new Maps application is amazing. Ask for your current location and just start zooming out slowly. Pay attention to when titles fade out and fade in, and how the typography changes: the way neighborhood names appear in faint grey in close range, then city names appear, then the cities become mixed case or small caps, then eventually state/province names appear—and if you keep zooming out from that, you end up with state abbreviations. At every level, the app keeps the appropriate aesthetics for a traditional print map at that scale. Notice when small streets fade away, and when eventually you just see a national highway system. State or province highways have the proper signage for the state or province. Now, when you’re zoomed into a high detail level, ask for information about a restaurant. Realize that not only is it pulling the review from Yelp, it’s pulling photos from Yelp, using them as a background and doing the Ken Burns effect with them. Find an Apple engineer to slap.

Yes, yes, you’re not going to stand around appreciating the finer details of the map application if the data is wrong. I get that. Pointing out that the vast majority of the data in the maps application is very clearly correct is small comfort if you need some of the data that’s wrong. But the vast majority of the data really is correct. When you’re talking about a data set the size of the entire world, then a 99.9% correctness still means hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of incorrect data points. Google Maps had very similar problems, and their most valuable resource has been users who reported them. This will probably work for Apple, too, at least if we actually report the problems rather than just creating Tumblrs mocking them.

For the record, Apple Maps knows exactly where that teriyaki place in Livermore is, and it’s the first hit on teriyaki livermore ca. Google still has no idea what the hell I’m talking about.

  1. Poking fun at all the places where the modeling screws up is already a meme and already getting tiring. Yes, Google Earth has far fewer errors and covers a lot more—but it’s also a lot less ambitious. Look at a place where they both have building “popups” and both get things right, and Apple’s just blows Google’s out of the water. 

  2. The other one being Navteq, the database behind Garmin, Mapquest, and Bing Maps—and a wholly-owned subsidiary of Nokia.