Pixel Envy

Written by Nick Heer.

‘The Bing of Maps’

Harsh title on this piece by Om Malik:

During the keynote at the recently concluded WWDC 2019, Apple executives made a big deal about the massive improvements in the Maps. This is a brand new Maps, Apple said. It is rebuilt and has more detailed information about everything from terrain to roads to landmarks. Apple said it drove four million miles to get better, richer data. The new Maps will also allow you to add favorite places and create a list of personal locations that can be shared with friends and family members. It will have a feature called “Look Around,” which is like Google’s Street View but with maybe slightly slicker and smoother visuals.

My reaction to Apple Maps was a shrug. So, they are finally catching up to Google — but will they ever be able to catch up with Google Maps? The WWDC hoopla around this tells me that Apple thinks of Apple Maps as an application, whereas in reality, maps are all about data — something Google understands better than anyone. Google maps are getting richer with data by the day. The more people use those maps to find locations, the deeper their data set gets. In my last visit to Old Delhi, I was able to find antique stores in back alleys with no difficulty at all. Apple Maps was nowhere close.

By the time Apple launched their maps product in 2012, Google had at least a seven year head start from the launch of Google Maps. Seven years is a hell of a long time to collect data, display it, make updates based on feedback, and establish a process for making cartographic and data changes. Coincidentally, Apple Maps is about as old now as Google Maps was when Apple launched their product.

Even so, in my area, Apple Maps has generally equalled Google Maps for my typical low-demand use. Its turn-by-turn directions are decent, its business listings are mostly fine — even though store hours are of dubious reliability — and it has the added bonus of not pestering me to log into an account. But the nature of mapping products is such that their quality is entirely location-dependent. In regions where fewer people use iPhone, the quality of Apple’s maps noticeably suffers. And if Malik’s central thesis is correct — that Apple Maps will forever be a distant second or third to Google Maps — then it is somewhat worrying if usage is as correlated with data quality as it appears to be.

Also, for what it’s worth, there’s already a Bing of maps. It’s really bad.

Update: Even though the iPhone has decent market share in Japan, map quality isn’t great there either.