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Pruning Apple’s Orchard Part 1- Apple Maps

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Orchards, no matter how strong and healthy, need consistent maintenance and TLC to stay at their peak performance. Well, Apple’s vast lineup of products is no different, and as we get closer to the silly season of rumors about iOS improvements and new devices, I am going to take a look at a few areas that have been bearing more than their share of rotten fruit.

The first is Apple Maps, easily the worst slip up to come out of Cupertino since Steve Job’s return to Apple in 1996. Yeah, it was that bad. Worse than the Cube. Worse than the launch of MobileMe. Antennagate is barely a blip on the radar in comparison. Apple still has a big black eye thanks to the fallout after the launch of what was supposed to be the centerpiece of iOS 6.

Of course, how bad Apple’s Maps are is in the eye of the beholder, and depends heavily on where the beholder lives. There are parts of the US, China, and Russia where Maps does a fine job of getting people where they are going. I don’t personally use it as much as Waze or Navigon’s MobileNavigator, but when I do, it gets me where I am going. I can honestly say that I’ve never had a major navigation issue with the service. Also, because I live in a mid-sized city were public transportation is limited, I don’t miss the removed transit and pedestrian directions. However, even though Maps hasn’t lead me off any cliffs, I have found that its relatively weak POI database is like an anchor around its neck. It just isn’t comprehensive enough. If I can’t find where I want to go, then what’s the point? That’s as big a reason as any why I don’t use it as much at this point.

I have heard from others who haven’t had tons of issues with Maps either, but there are definitely many more people who have. I think this is even more of a problem outside of the US, but no matter where you live and what your experience has been, the shortcomings of the initial rollout of Maps are very clear at this point. Just after launch, it was hard to know if some of the negativity was due to linkbaiting and Apple bashing, but enough time has passed to know that, even if things were a bit overcooked at times, there really are some fundamental issues that Apple needs to address with this product.

It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that Apple severely underestimated how difficult it would be to build out its own mapping system in such a short amount of time. They tried to get around the boots on the ground approach that Google took with its maps by purchasing the rights to data from reliable sources, such as TomTom and Waze, but as it turns out, that just wasn’t enough. The patchwork of data just has too many places that don’t quite fit together, which seems to be the root of a lot of the mapping and POI problems. And expecting users to fill in the blanks by submitting error reports is incredibly short sighted and poor marketing. It’s one thing for Waze to do this for their free service that has some very specific features that users gain in return for helping them build out their maps. It’s quite another for one of the most valuable companies on the planet to expect this with an app that is part of their OS.

Maybe Scott Forstall and his team thought the design of the app and the integration with the rest of iOS and Siri, all of which is actually quite good, would make up for any shortcomings. That, and the glossy 3D Flyover views of cities, where they were available.

 

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However, even that became a point of contention, as the software often distorted features, or ended up with missing cities due to cloudy satellite shots.

 

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Whatever the issues, it quickly became clear that pretty interface and a first attempt at a wizz-bang feature were not going to be enough to distract users from what was missing from Maps.

So it would be easy to keep on recounting what happened, but that’s been done…a LOT. Instead, let’s focus on what comes next. Despite the protest and begging of some users early on after the release of iOS 6, there’s no going back for Apple. Pandora’s Box is open. The bell can’t be unrung. Google Maps will never be the default option again, and is now available as a free, stand alone (and very popular) option in the App Store. Apple HAS to find a way to make meaningful progress on addressing the issues with their stock mapping, and in a way that the public can start to see it in the short term, so that they can begin to rebuild some of the consumer trust that has been lost.

One of the first measures that Apple took to try and address issues in Maps was to ask their retail employees to help check the accuracy of their local map data. This was certainly a novel approach, and probably a smart first step. Since Apple does employ a sizable retail workforce, it makes a lot of sense to put them to work in the areas where there are Apple Stores. However, while this was a smart move, it’s impact is very limited. There is only so much that retail employees with no experience in cartograhy can do to repair the most serious issues in their local areas. Then there is, of course, the limited reach of Apple’s retail presence.

 

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Apple did also move the Maps error reporting options to the main menu of the app in iOS 6.1, but this, along with co-opting their own employees, were small token moves to show the public and the media that they were already doing something. What’s been happening since then? Well, it’s hard to pin down exactly what’s going on, but it looks like Apple’s moves over the last six months have been more along the lines of building out their staff  in a much more meaningful and permanent way. First, there were reports from Techcrunch (here and here) in September that Apple was aggressively pursuing contractors who had formerly worked on developing Google Maps.

Smart move. As this quote in the Techcrunch article points out, Apple was coming in at just the right time to pick up a lot of qualified people.

Many of my coworkers at Google Maps eventually left when their contracts ended or on their own accord. One guy looked around for other GIS work and ended up at Apple when a recruiter contacted him. He had heard rumors for a while that Apple was going to develop its own in-house mapping platform, and given his experience at Google, he was an easy hire. Apple went out of their way to bring him down to Cupertino and he’s now paid hansomly as a GIS Analyst. Another coworker that was a project lead at Google Maps, left for the East Coast after his contract ended, and was recently contacted by an Apple recruiter. The position sounds like a product development manager position, and will pay him $85k+ and all the moving expenses from the East Coast. He’s gone through 2 rounds of interview and seems like a frontrunner to land that position.

We don’t know just how many people that Apple has hired, but going after people with experience is key, so this is a no-brainer.

Then in November, while rumors were swirling around about the imminent release of a Google Maps app for iOS, we also began to hear rumors about the affects of Apple’s management shakeup on Maps.

 

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Eddy Cue, Apple’s very own Mr Fixit, was reported taking a lead role in cleaning up the mess that the previous team had left. Of course, Cue is no stranger to this kind of challenge, as he was the guy Steve Jobs trusted to get MobileMe back on track after a rocky start. If there is a guy at Apple that we want overseeing the future of Apple Maps, it’s this guy. Again, this news bodes well for the future.

Then, just a month and a half ago, Applebitch reported that Apple had advertised for ten more Software Engineers related to Maps. The quote from the article below shows that Apple is seeking to beef things up across the board of the Maps offerings.

The positions include the opportunity to work on user interface development, integration with other iOS services such as Siri and MapKit (the framework that allows other app to use Apple Maps), Turn-by-Turn navigation enhancements, real time maps display, road and points of interest labelling3D flyover and road rendering, as well as those will expertise with spatial algorithms. All are based in Cupertino and will be part of the team that is dedicated to improving the Apple Maps application.

Again, Apple has been consistently going after engineering talent to bring Maps up to speed since the big media blowup after its release. They SHOULD have done this during the app’s design phase, but that’s water under the bridge. Knowing that they are consistently beefing up this department at least means they are on the right track.

Then, just yesterday we got some more news about Apple Maps, and to me, this is the best news yet. Apple is now advertising for Maps Ground Truth Managers for all regions of the world. There are seven positions listed on the Apple hiring site, which cover the US, the Americas, Western Europe, Eastern Europe, APAC, Japan, and the Mid-East and Africa. Here is a quote from the job description:

The Maps team is searching for a manager for the team responsible for regional map quality and ground truth in the U.S.. Each of our regional teams is responsible for the quality of our maps in their region. This team’s responsibilities include:

• Testing new releases of map code and data around the U.S.
• Collecting ground truth data to allow for analysis of the impact of potential map code or data changes relative to known truth
• Utilizing local expertise to provide feedback about U.S.-specific mapping details
• Evaluating competing products in-region relative to our maps

As the manager of this team, you will be expected to drive all of this team’s work, determine where and how to allocate resources, and clearly communicate test results and other feedback to teams in Cupertino. The U.S. regional team is also responsible for driving communication between engineering teams in Cupertino and our other regional teams, as well as evaluating new regional testing initiatives in close coordination with the rest of the Maps quality team before those initiatives are rolled out to the other regional teams.

As you can see, Apple is really serious about getting Maps right. This is going to take a long time, just as it did for Google with their own Maps, but it is clear to me that Apple is no longer just trying to cobble together a system from other mapping company’s bits and pieces. This is the most definitive proof yet that they are going in the right direction of getting boots on the ground and actually testing and fixing their mapping and POI data. This is really the ONLY reliable way to make a mapping product that people can trust.

There is no doubt that Apple has all of the resources necessary to pull of this revamp of their mapping system. Right now, its all about consistency and execution. While I’ve heard and read some podcasters and tech pundits recently proclaim that they think Maps is starting to improve in their areas, this is just the beginning. For a small example of this gradual improvement, below are newly taken screenshots of the Brooklyn Bridge and Colchester, England, both of which were shown in their poorer initial incarnations above.

 

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No more crushed roadways or blanket cloudcover. It’s a start.

It will take several years for Apple to get the people in place and gain the experience to truly challenge either Google and Nokia in mapping. However, I think Apple’s moves over the last six months prove that they aren’t going to back away from Maps, or ultimately kill it off. They are in this for the long haul, and are laying the groundwork to support the kind of mapping product that can stand toe-to-toe with their competitors.

So we know how Maps started (poorly), and we know some of the moves that Apple has made since (solid, so far). What happens now? What directions can Apple go in that will make a real difference in Maps, especially in the short-term? Here are a few of my humble suggestions of things I hope to see.

 

1. Do Something About POI Integration

For the love of God, PLEASE. Since the maps are pretty good in my area, and evidently in several others across the US, the POI information is what’s really lacking for me. Yelp would be fine to include as a limited, background source of information, but they are not cutting it as one of only three sources for an app that’s used as much to look up locations, as it is to get there. As for Acxiom and Localeze, the other providers of business information, it’s hard to say exactly how much information they provide, because they aren’t as front facing as Yelp.

So what can Apple do? Buying Yelp and infusing it with the cash to go further could be one option, although that probably isn’t the best fit with the service’s crowdsourced design. That isn’t exactly Apple’s wheelhouse. However, just how many other acquirable options are out there? There are a few, but we’ll get to that in a moment.

Another option is for Apple to furiously add other sources of data to supplement what Yelp, Acxiom and Localeze provide. How about partnering with one or more of the Yellow Pages and White Pages services out there? With the dominance of digital over paper firmly established, these services have all turned their attention to online and app offerings, but there is so much more competition there than they ever faced before. They are all basically going head-to-head with Google, just like Apple. A lucrative licensing deal with Apple would probably look pretty appealing, and would give them a great hedge against Google’s rising power in this space.

Apple can, of course, build out their own database of POIs, but let’s be realistic. That will take years. Many, many years. However, while we aren’t privy to all of the licensing deals that Apple is subject to with their POI partners, all of these POI additions and corrections made through the app are coming back to them. If that data belongs to them per their agreements, then I’m sure they are already working on something. This is ultimately where they need to go with Maps, but like I said, it will be a long time before Apple can handle all of their own POI, especially worldwide.

 

2. Find a Way to Make Flyover More Than a Toy

 

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Let’s be honest. That’s all it is right now. Sure, it’s cool to look at a place you’re going to visit in advance, or somewhere that you are interested in, but other than that, what is it useful for in its current form?

I am aware that this same tech is where Apple’s 3D building modeling for turn-by-turn navigation in Maps comes from, but that’s also only so useful. It works well (where Apple has done 3D modeling), but Google Maps and Sygic’s apps also offer the same features. It’s more for eye candy at this point, and Apple needs to move Maps beyond that. What they really need to do is find a way to turn Flyover and its 3D modeling technology robust enough to become a viable alternative to Google’s Street View.

I know. That sounds crazy. However, what would be the point of Apple chasing Google on a feature that they have such a massive head start on? There isn’t one. Apple is too far behind in more critical areas of mapping technology, and that’s where they are focusing their energy (at least according to reports and job openings) right now. Rather than trying to copy what Google is doing with Street View, why not invest further in the technology that you already own to provide a useful alternative that will cost FAR less, and also take less time to build out?

You can already use Apple’s 3D modeling to get a bird’s eye view of many locations, and travel the streets of an area from above. However, there is a lot of work and scrolling around that’s necessary to do it. If Apple wants to make this tech truly useful, they need to integrate it with navigation in a way that will help users figure out what a destination looks like while driving or walking in an automated way. This won’t be easy, and probably wouldn’t be useful in the software’s current form, but it is a direction that Apple should be heading with it as soon as they can get there.

 

3. Buy, Buy, Buy

This certainly won’t solve all of Apple’s problems, especially when you consider that acquisitions are pretty much how they started their mapping efforts. However, while Apple bought tech and talent early on, what they didn’t get was mapping data. As big as they are, and ambitious as they seem to be when it comes to mapping, that can’t go on too much longer.

Apple building out their own data sounds like the best solution, but maybe not when you consider that they are starting at ground zero. There have been rumors floating around at various times in the last few months that Apple was looking at TomTom and Waze, both of whom they already partner with. Waze seems like a cool idea on the surface, but as with Yelp, a lot of their power comes through crowdsourcing. While I would love to see Apple go that direction with mapping, it certainly doesn’t fit their MO. Plus, you can pretty much guarantee that Waze’s cross platform compatibility would go away. That would make a LOT of users very angry. Ultimately, this would be an odd fit. It’s probably wiser for Apple to partner with Waze on traffic and supplemental map info than to buy them.

To me, TomTom seems like a better option. Their Tele Atlas mapping data would instantly give Apple one of the top databases in the world, along with Nokia’s Navteq and Google’s. TomTom also doesn’t rely as much on crowdsourcing, and has an extensive POI database that would also instantly help to fill out Apple’s. One issue with this idea is that Apple would have to either shutter TomTom’s remaining PND business, or figure out what to do with it. A possible way to get around this would to acquire Tele Atlas from TomTom, with an iron-clad lifetime license to the data given back to TomTom for their devices and services.

This could potentially be a big win for both companies. TomTom could continue to sell its own PNDs, app, and services, while offloading the upkeep of the map data to Apple, with it’s vast cash resources. On the other hand, Apple gets instant credibility and a vast mapping database. This wouldn’t solve all of their problems, and would require a large, dedicated staff to keep up, but it would make the data Apple’s, and their’s alone. Considering how much they like to control everything from resources, to their supply chain, to their end-to-end experience, Apple having their own map data seems inevitable. This move gets them there MUCH faster.

 

4. Onboard is Better

One off the reasons that I like to use Navigon’s MobileNavigator is because of its reliability. All of the mapping data and routing are done on-device, so I never have to worry about a data connection. This isn’t a huge issue where I live, but I have run into signal issues plenty of times while traveling, especially in rural areas. It’s nice to know that your navigation solution won’t let you down when you get off the beaten path.

Considering that Google is already headed this direction, giving users the ability to locally store map data for certain areas on Android devices, Apple needs to go a step further to get ahead of the game. I’m not suggesting that Apple should make Maps completely stand alone. However, it would be wise to allow users to choose areas to cache. Even better, allowing users to store entire routes ahead of time could take care of the problem of Interstate and Highway routing in-between metro areas that users may be traveling to.

Add to this the ability to generate routes based on this locally stored map data, add you have a pretty good solution that doesn’t completely Sherlock the existing turn-by-turn navigation apps in the App Store, but does give travelers more power in their stock mapping option.

Oh, and more more thing. Add seamless iCloud local route and map data syncing between devices when they are connected to the Internet, and you have a great way of navigating using multiple devices (potentially including a smart watch that may or may not find its way out of Jony Ive’s lab one of these days) while on the go.

 

5. All Hands On Deck

I’ve never been a big fan of Apple’s GPS policy for non-phones. Basically, if it doesn’t have cellular Internet access, then it doesn’t have a GPS chip. This means that all iPod Touches and a large percentage of iPads do not have true navigation capabilities. This was shortsighted in the past, especially considering how cheap these chips are when bought in Apple numbers these days. Now, with Apple trying to use data from its users to bolster its own mapping solution, it’s penny wise and pound foolish. Considering that Apple needs as much map data as it can get, this policy no longer makes any sense at all. All Apple devices down to the iPod Touch need to have GPS included across the board, from now on.

Whatever Apple ultimately decides to do, they have their work cut out for them. My five suggestions here won’t bypass much of that hard work, but I think that they are fairly easy ways for Apple to smooth their path to a better mapping experience for iOS. We’ve already seen a few improvements made to Maps, but Tim Cook and Apple have been pretty quiet since their apologies about poor map data, and the subsequent management shakeup. However, with iOS 7 coming fast, expect the rumors to pick up fast on what Apple’s short and long term plans for Maps will be. Right now, it’s still anyone’s guess.

Considering that, what do you think? What should Apple do to help with Maps? What do you think they will do? Also, what has your experience been so far with Apple’s Maps in iOS 6? Have you had problems? Have they worked well for you? Do you use a competing app, and if so, why? I would love to hear any and all opinions on one of the hottest topics in the Apple blogosphere in years. Feel free to let me know in the comments, in the forums, or you can hit me up on Twitter @jhrogersii, or on Google+. I would love to hear from you.

Until next time, when we will go over another hot button Apple issue, safe travels. May you map lead you where you need to go.

 

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