Monday, September 24, 2012

Why I Love and Hate Apple Maps in iOS 6

Apple surprised me with its Maps update in iOS 6. It wasn't just that it represents one of the few missteps that Apple makes but that Apple violated several tenets of its very well-honed brand foundation and reputation.

The debacle that is Apple Maps is epic with failures in three key areas: usability, data, and business decision-making. This posting expands on each of those areas.

Whereas Google seems to have mastered the use of size, color, and text to visualize an area at any zoom level, Apple seems to have applied a design perspective that I can only describe as cartoonish. The font is larger and looks great on the screen, but makes it more difficult to fit the road names into tighter spaces. Usability failures become most apparent when activating the traffic layer, a visualization that is just downright awful in comparison to Google's solution. When examining a route in Google Maps with an activated traffic layer, it's fairly easy to quickly differentiate between free moving traffic, slow spots, and areas better described as parking lots when glancing at the screen and seeing how the road colors changes. By contrast, Apple has thrown the Google method out and only shows areas of trouble using small dashed colored lined embedded in the established road paths. At similar zoom levels, it's nearly impossible to really see the traffic visualization without really focusing on the Apple map. I couldn't imagine using the current incarnation of Apple Maps on an iPhone in the car versus Google Maps on my Galaxy Nexus (or on an iOS 5 iPhone).

I haven't reviewed the data in Apple Maps to any great degree to give a personal verdict, but I can look to Mike Dobson of TeleMapics, a cartographer that has become one of the leading voices critiquing Apple Maps data. In his blog posting, "Google Maps announces a 400 year advantage over Apple Maps,"  Dobson discusses his perspective on the key areas where Apple failed with regards to Maps data: Completeness, Logical Consistency, Positional Accuracy, Temporal Accuracy, and Thematic Accuracy. Dobson's premise is that, assuming that Apple is starting from scratch, it has a very long way to go to compete with Google on just the raw data level. One recent report estimates that Google has over 1000 employees and 6000 contractors that work actively on refining and enhancing Google Maps. To match Google's employee number, Apple would need to dedicate nearly 10% of its overall workforce just to keep pace with Google. That's not a reassuring figure.

As for business decision-making, I hold Apple to higher expectations. I've used Apple products for over 20 years and my household currently includes two iPads, two iPods, and the MBPro that I'm using to write this blog posting. My usage and appreciation for Apple products gives me a pretty good perspective on Apple and why individuals are willing to pay a premium for its products. Apple computers and devices just work better than their counterparts because of Apple's commitment to strong design principles, refined development, and quality assurance. As an Apple customer, I trust that the company will not steer me wrong.

Because of my experience and admiration for the company, I'm left to scratch my head about what Apple was thinking when it decided to release Maps with iOS 6. I recognize that the competitive environment is highly charged between Apple and Google, but Apple's cooperative work with other arch-rival Microsoft, especially with regards to Exchange email system integration, suggests that Apple should be able to accept that a competitor has created a superior product that consumers find to be desirable. Punting Google Maps just comes off as petty and reactionary, something that I expect from a more brutish company like Microsoft than an arrogant design shop like Apple. Even if Apple believes that it could develop a better product, I would have expected the company to execute better by at least acquiring an existing mapping service or company, such as Tom Tom or MapQuest, and then using Apple's in-house design and engineering expertise to present the quality data better. I'm disappointed to think that if Steve Jobs were still running the company, Apple would have never succumbed to Google's beta-release/frequently update release strategy that is currently at the heart of my Defect Acceptance argument. I expect more from Apple.

While I'm very disappointed with how Apple executed the Maps transition, I do have to give credit to Apple for continuing to believe in its ability to be innovative in spite of another company's dominance in any given area. Apple's entire history is one of rebellion, be it against IBM and the PC, against Microsoft and the OS, against Sony and the portable music player, against RIM and the smart phone, etc. Because Apple continues to question the right of dominance to dictate interface, form factor, and function, it demonstrates that we shouldn't just sit back and accept the status quo. I believe that Apple Maps is a Newtonian failure, but perhaps a Phoenix will rise from the ashes.

In an altruistic fantasy, I might think that Tim Cook allowed Apple Maps to be released not to dominate but to enhance our understanding of the impact that Defect Acceptance has had on our contemporary perception of quality. But, in my much more reasoned business perspective, I'm pretty sure that he did it just to announce to the world that Google is only as good as the devices it's on. Unfortunately, doing so may have only differentiated the Android platform in a way that will ultimately be very disadvantageous for Apple.