This has been a bad week for technical journalism. Everything was going according to script; new iPhone announced on 12th September; not really much new but oh, the design, oh, the performance, oh, the small touches. Then those with early access to devices poured forth their reviews: “probably the most beautiful smartphone anyone has ever made,” said The Telegraph, while Walt Mossberg on the Wall Street Journal said that “Apple has taken an already great product and made it better.”
Mossberg did say that the new Maps app in the iPhone5 was “the biggest drawback” though the faults he found were, in retrospect, minor. He observes the lack of public transport information, and add that “while I found Apple’s maps accurate, they tend to default to a more zoomed-in view than Google’s, making them look emptier until you zoom out.”
When iOS 6 was rolled out generally this week though, the public had a different take on the subject. One factor was that they looked at the maps in their own location, whereas early reviewers tend to be located in major cities. The big issue is not the lack of public transport routing, though that is an issue, but the poor quality of the data. It is simply not of release quality. One small example. Birmingham Airport is a significant destination in the UK, but if I search for it here, I get mysteriously directed to Aldridge Airport, 20 miles north.
Note: “Aldridge Airport” closed in the sixties and is “Now an open space used for football, dogwalking and the buzz of radio controlled aircraft.”
Birmingham airport itself seems missing.
This search is no challenge for Google Maps.
Maps are important on a mobile device, and this was an instance where the technical press, labouring as usual under short deadlines and the unrealistic challenge of perfectly encapsulating the qualities of a complex product with a few days of skimpy research and a few hundred words, let the public down.
More significantly, it is the biggest PR disaster for Apple that I can think of in recent years, certainly since the launch of the iPod in 2001, which was in a sense the beginning of Apple’s mobile adventure. When a tube station puts out a notice mocking Apple’s maps you know that this is a problem that everyone is talking about, not just the Twitterati.
Why has Apple done this? It is paying the price for escaping Google dependence, a real problem, but one that you would have thought could have been better addressed by licensing maps from Microsoft or Nokia, both of which have better maps; or by sticking with Google a little longer while putting its own effort out as an alpha preview while it fixes the data.
Apple will no doubt fix its maps and the decision to break with Google may eventually look good, but it is hard to see how it can fix them quickly.
The big reveal here is how Apple is prioritising its long-term industry strategy ahead of the interests of its users. Apple has done this before; but never with such obvious harm to usability.
It is still, no doubt, a beautiful phone, and the maps issue will be solved, if only by using Google’s web maps instead.
Apple looks mortal though, and the script is not playing back as planned. People who once would only have considered Apple will now be more aware that alternatives are in some respects better. The longer the maps issue continues, the more significant will be the effect.
Apple should withdraw its broken maps, go back to Google at least temporarily and reinstate the old maps app.
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