Hi Apple. Welcome to the Mapping World. How was your first day?

Man, tough welcome to the mapping world for the newly launched Apple Maps.  There’s been a ton of commentary from all quarters, some insightful, some less so.  I debated chiming in, partly because so much has already been said and partly because I have several friends on the Apple Geo Team.  They’re smart, dedicated people and I suspect that today was pretty brutal over there. I didn’t want to pile on.

The Apple maps clearly have major problems. Not to be lost are some things done well. I like the feel and cartography of vector maps, the navigation app works very well and despite self-serving comments from some, I have not seen a big problem with the TomTom map data. The absence of mass transit routing is a hole and there are embarrassing gaps in the aerial imagery.  The former needs to be fixed, maybe by acquisition.  The latter is bad, but realistically I don’t use aerial imagery in day to day life that much. The big issue that will be hard to solve, seems to be in aggregating and indexing POI data and in search. If I were the type to say “I told you so” I’d be doing that now…but I am not that type….so I won’t say that.

Here’s an example:  I searched for “bagels” and was directed to an address on Lincoln Ave in Palo Alto.  I drove there (nav worked great!) and got exactly to that address.  The problem is that it’s a residential neighborhood (see panoramic picture taken with cool new iOS6 panoramic feature).  

There is no bagel store. The Apple place page has the same address…odd. But when I go to Yelp (which is nicely integrated in iOS6), I can see that the street address is right, but it is on Lincoln Ave in San Jose.  So they got the number and street right, but got the wrong city.

By the way, the same thing happens for Accel Partners’ Palo Alto office; it is relocated to the right University Ave address, but in Los Gatos. It’s not an isolated event. That’s a weird problem but a result of something bad happening in the aggregation of entity data and subsequent indexing.  I suspect they’re working hard to fix that.

Here’s the thing I really would like to know:  What is Apple trying to do with maps and location? And what did Apple expect?

What is Apple’s Goal?

Obviously Apple wants to replace Google as the iOS map supplier.  Is that all?  Do they want to create something that is “good enough”?  Or do they see location and mapping as a key strategic leg of their mobile strategy? Google does.  Nokia does.

Apple does not typically shoot for “good enough”.  We all expect them to be wanting to change the way we think of maps, to do something big and new and different.  But if that’s what they want to do, they need to staff the effort at at least the level of their competitors, Google and Nokia.  They haven’t, and the results show it. They have put neither the money, time nor the manpower that those competitors have put into this market . If Apple’s management think they will compete with Google at their current level of resources, they really don’t get this market. They will be a perennial follower.

What did Apple Expect?

Second, what did they expect when they launched? Apple Maps Beta has been out for months and the whisper mill has been bad. Generally along the lines of “I know it’s just Beta but….” and “Hope they fix it before release”. I knew that and I am not an insider; I assume Apple knew that better than me. It took me 5 minutes to break search so these weren’t the weird, quirky Swindon  Roundabout type map oddities that abound in the geo-world. So I assume that Apple knew about these problems as well. Yet they went ahead with the launch.

The most charitable thing I can assume is that Google gave them a hard deadline and they had no choice. As agonizing as today surely was in Cupertino, I suspect there was a certain amount of malicious glee in Mountain View.  In my imagination, the whiteboard in Brian McClendon‘s office has Napoleon’s wise advice “Never interrupt your enemy when he’s making a mistake”. So Google may have given them no choice…but I doubt that. There’s too much benefit from the iOS distribution.

The next possibility is that they knew and didn’t care.  They felt that the “beauty” of the maps would outweigh the underlying faults in the data structure. We heard a lot about how good looking the maps are.  And to give credit, they are good looking.  As I said, I like the app itself. But anyone in this business will tell you that consumers have long memories of faulty maps.  It’s obvious to say now, but if that was the case, it was a serious miscalculation.

The third possibility is that bad news just doesn’t flow uphill at Apple and the senior execs really didn’t know. If that’s the case, Apple has much bigger problems than their maps.

Well, welcome to the mapping world, Apple. I wish them the best of luck, as an iPhone user but also as someone who really wants them to succeed. We need more options, not fewer.  But today’s debut performance wasn’t the result of that team not trying. If Apple wants to be one of the Big Three map platforms, they’re going to need to get serious.

Additional Comments added 9/22/12:

Dave Girouard made a good point that impacts the “why did Apple launch a buggy product?” question.  They don’t have many windows for this launch; it was either with iOS6 (and the iPhone5) or wait until iOS7 or the next big release. The latter is too far out.  Given that, it seems like the options at this point are (a) second guessing and (b) figuring out how they move from here. While (a) is fun, it’s probably time to stop that.  Where Apple goes from here, and how the map will really improve with more use (the Apple PR line) are more interesting topics.  Maybe the next post.


3 thoughts on “Hi Apple. Welcome to the Mapping World. How was your first day?

  1. I welcome this launch because, after everyone’s finished whining about how much better google maps is, some proportion of savvy developers will ask themselves “Shouldn’t this be open data?” at which point they’ll quickly hit upon OpenStreetMap. Not-for-profit maps as open data. The mega-corporations are battling it out, but OpenStreetMap will win in the end.

    1. Harry, I’d like to think that will be true. The new license (and resulting clarification) will help them know what they are getting from a legal perspective. Consistent quality worldwide will come. Now if you can just do something about the rabid community politics… 🙂

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