Okay, so it’s been well-documented that the Maps app for Apple’s
(NASDAQ:AAPL) iOS 6 is terrible. After Apple removed Google’s
(NASDAQ:GOOG) maps system and inserted its own in the latest update to the mobile operating system, public outcry has reached comical levels—as have Apple’s errors.
The east side of Portland, Oregon, has become a nature park
; all the rivers have been removed
from Belgrade, Serbia; and Kevin Rathbun Steak House has opened a new location in the middle of the outfield
at the Atlanta Braves’ home stadium. Even better, many cities in the Czech Republic have reverted to their old pre-World War II names.
But how bad could iOS 6 Maps really be for most day-to-day tasks?
When I moved to New York, I needed that app just to make it home. Could I do the same thing with the updated version? In order to determine the answer, I left the Minyanville office Wednesday morning equipped with a MetroCard and an iPhone 4, ready to push a piece of software to its very limits. What I found was pretty interesting, and it says a lot about the future of Apple—among other companies.
As I started out, I checked the map. It placed me a block or so away from where I actually was, but I figured that was forgivable. Avenue blocks are short, so the total error was only about twenty yards. It was Yom Kippur, but I decided to break my fast early, so I searched for “breakfast near Union Square.”
"I guess I’ll be a good Jew today, then," I thought, walking past a good half-dozen breakfast places whose existence iOS 6 Maps flatly denied. As I made my way down towards 14th St., though, I realized that this might be a long morning: According to the app, the nearby subway station had moved to the exact center of Union Square Park, which is a) ridiculous and b) about 40 yards off, but mostly a) ridiculous.
I scrolled up and around the area looking for other subway stations, and I found to my dismay that the app’s formerly near-flawless knowledge of the New York City subway system was pretty much gone. There were a few stations here and there, but they either weren’t labeled properly or were in the wrong place... or both.
Disheartened, I set off (on foot) towards the Flatiron Building, which started off okay. As I approached, though, I found myself in a predicament. Sure, the big triangular building at the corner of Broadway and Fifth Avenue looked
like an old-fashioned flatiron, but iOS 6 Maps clearly stated that the building was located in two places at once: All the way across the square, and where it actually was.
“Where am I?” I thought. “And what is going on?” Just for fun, I decided to stand on the other side of the street and ask for directions to Herald Square. Turns out public transit is Greek to iOS 6, unless you’re in Greece, in which case it’s Dutch. Or something. It did, however, direct me to the revamped iTrans NYC, which was once my favorite app, but has since become a grotesquely reassembled monster now that it can’t use Google Maps. iTrans NYC had me run some wide receiver routes in the park before I got on a train, which was odd but nicely invigorating.
The rest of the morning was a laundry list of lesser but similar quibbles. I got around okay (because I am a New York ninja), but the phone, while doing basic things well, didn’t even do things that it used to do fine. The weaknesses of the new app are manifold, but three stood out to me in particular.
1. The satellite positioning is significantly weaker than it was.
Or at least it seems that way; the little blue “this is you!” dot was a good block or two away from where I was standing most of the time, and the amount of time the phone spent wagging that little dot all over the city while it figured out my position was significantly increased. This has all sorts of consequences, like the fact that the app regularly mandates bizarre maneuvers for relatively simple navigation.
2. The lack of integration with public transit is simply not okay.
Subway stations and bus stops are marked with the same care and frequency as restaurants and nail salons. iOS 6 Maps simply doesn’t prioritize well, meaning that crucial, infrastructure-based things like subways don’t show up the way they did in the previous version of the software. When they do, they’re not given enough information; clicking on a subway station is easy enough, but Maps can’t even tell you what trains run through the station. The app’s inability to give public transit based directions, a byproduct of this flaw, is similarly unacceptable, especially since the old version could do that easily.
3. Speaking of prioritizing: iOS 6 Maps doesn’t understand context at all.
If I’m in New York City and I search for “148 Stuyvesant Ave.,” I’m probably talking about the one in Brooklyn just off the J train. I’m probably not
talking about the Stuyvesant Avenue in Merrick, NY, or Newark, NJ, but both of those came up before the one in Bed-Stuy when I searched. And don’t bother searching for restaurants called “Spain” and “Martinique,” because the iPhone will whisk you away to foreign parts rather than realize that you might be referring to the tapas bar two blocks away. As David Pogue pointed out in the New York Times
, Apple’s reason for elbowing Google out of the picture is pretty simple: Applications like Maps supplied Google with a tremendous amount of free information about iPhone users, and Apple was sick of providing its main competitor with all that data. Its app is so new and so raw, though, that user confidence is quickly evaporating. I wouldn’t trust an infant to get me home from the bar, and iOS 6 Maps is clearly still in diapers.
Apple’s strength for so many years has been vertical integration, and not the evil robber-baron kind but the forward-thinking and graceful kind that allows iPods, iPhone, iMacs, MacBooks, and all the Apple-made accessories to look like members of a single family. For them to abandon this approach so completely in this app—drawing restaurant reviews from Yelp, driving directions from TomTom, traffic data from Waze, etc.—is perhaps an admission that in a world as mobile as ours, no one company can do everything anymore. Apple has been obsessed with making its devices smaller and smaller, but iOS 6 Maps reminds us that no matter how slim your iPhone is, the world is as enormous as ever.
(See also: Who's the Winner and Loser in the Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL) / Google (NASDAQ:GOOG) Maps War?