iOS Maps will be great for Apple (and Android users too)

This article may contain personal views and opinion from the author.
iOS Maps will be great for Apple (and Android users too)
We’ve all had a good laugh over the past week after seeing the troubles that users have had with Apple’s new Maps app in iOS. We’ve seen the wonky visuals, the complete mistakes, the bad directions, the missing data points, and all of the other strange problems that have been found in Apple’s new offering. The app is a mess, and it isn’t up to the standards that we tend to have for an Apple product. And, Apple still had a year on its deal with Google, so it wasn’t exactly forced to release the app as is. But, we just want to say one more thing on the topic, because Apple's decision will be great for the company, and may be great for you too (even if you're an Android or Windows Phone user.)

To be perfectly clear: we are not saying that iOS Maps is a great product. It is clearly a very underdeveloped product, that needs a lot of work. But even so, over time, it will prove to be a very valuable product for Apple. The software is obviously not ready for prime time, and it wasn't even the best way Apple could have gone about the software release. But, at the end of the day, Apple had to make this change, because of the future benefits of controlling its own maps data, and the fact that in the end it may be easier to fix in the wild than in house.

First off, Apple had one major choice: put its effort towards building its own Maps, or use resources to update the Google Maps app in iOS. Keep in mind, Apple still had a deal with Google, and more importantly, Apple built both the Google Maps app in iOS and the YouTube app. So, if either of those apps were to be updated, Apple would have had to assign developers to take time away from an Apple product in order to update an app that directly supports a competitor’s product. Not many companies will choose to do that, and Apple was no different. Additionally, according to an Apple employee, Google was not going to allow Apple to use turn-by-turn navigation or the 3D vector maps in an iOS app, because Google wanted to keep an advantage for Android.

As a result, the Maps app in iOS fell behind on features. It didn’t have turn-by-turn navigation, offline maps, 3D maps, or indoor mapping like the Google offering on Android, and even if Apple put developers towards updating the app, the most important of those features wouldn't have been available anyway. We certainly didn’t expect Apple to be able to match those and all of the other services built into Google Maps, but even so we seem to have expected too much from Apple. Google Maps has been consistently evolving thanks to huge amounts of investment by Google for the past 7 years. Apple couldn’t match that with an in-house development team, it needed to get a mapping service with turn-by-turn navigation to users. 

Apple’s big mistake

Apple’s mistake in releasing Maps wasn’t in quality control and testing. The world is an enormous place, and Apple has a pretty small team of developers comparatively, and it is always possible that Apple simply didn't put enough people on the project. Even so, Apple’s biggest mistake was one on which Google has always erred on the opposite side: using the Beta tag. Apple is not a company that is known to release beta software. More often, it is known to be a company that holds software a bit too long. But, if Apple could have learned anything from last year’s Siri launch, it’s that sometimes the Beta tag is your best friend, because not all products can be launched fully mature.

There is no way that Siri was going to launch as a perfect product, even with the help of Dragon Dictate, Wikipedia, and Wolfram Alpha. The amount of data needed to build a voice-powered virtual assistant is staggering, and one that requires crowd-sourcing to complete, because there are only so many voices at Apple to test, while there are millions and millions of iOS users speaking multiple languages in various dialects and accents. Imagine if Apple had just tweaked the launch language for Siri a bit, and instead of saying "it works, right out of the box", Apple had said, "It works, right out of the box, but it will also continuously learn from everything you put into it." Public reaction could have been very different (aside from the annoyance of the server outages), and the same holds true for Maps.

There was no way Maps was going to launch fully formed, even with the number of acquisitions Apple made, and the data from OpenStreetMaps. Sure, Apple could have done better about the 3D rendering and satellite mismatching, but a lot of other issues are ones that can only be found and fixed with user involvement, because something like the task of testing every possible combination of point-to-point directions is something no company could test on its own. But, imagine this: What if Apple had come out at WWDC, and instead of only giving the positives of Maps, Tim Cook had said something similar what Apple said last week, “This is a major initiative and we are just getting started with it. We are continuously improving it, and as Maps is a cloud-based solution, the more people use it, the better it will get.”

How much better would that have been? All Apple had to do was be honest (and still sound like Apple), and say, “This is a huge project, and we can’t do this alone. We need your help in building it, and making it better. Here is the future: iOS Maps Beta.” Of course, Apple still doesn’t understand the value in being open with its users, and while Tim Cook may be getting better at managing expectations within the rumor mill, he has a lot to learn about launching huge new ventures. Apple could have even released Maps as an opt-in service for the first year, and allowed only the most engaged Apple users to get in on it and help fix it. That would have finished out the Google contract, and given Apple Maps time to grow and mature a bit before it went out to the world. That may have been another mistake in Apple’s plan, but ultimately, Apple had to have its own maps, because that’s the world we live in.

The coming end of the Google Maps monopoly

We are living in a mobile world. Apple saw that a long time ago, and that’s why the company made the iPhone in the first place. Computing has gone mobile, because we aren’t a sedentary species, we move around a lot (of course some more than others). So, the dynamic of information services has changed dramatically.People can no longer be counted on to be accessing the web, or web services from one specific spot, like you could in the days of desktops. Now, we carry our connections in our pockets, and a great way to offer a better mobile experience, and provide better services is to draw on a user's location, and the places that are nearby. We’ve seen it in almost every new product over the past few years, and the more data companies have on you, the more they can offer

Just think of all of the apps you use consistently on your smartphone, and how each one benefits from either giving you constant access from anywhere, or knowing where you are at any given time. Social networking would never have gotten as huge as it has without the ability to contribute from anywhere instantly. Check-in services that have become place recommendation engines thrive on local data. Even basic apps like to-do lists have gotten a huge boost from being able to tag where you are and where you’re likely to go. Google Now is a service that relies on that data to a huge degree. And, of course there are the advancements within Google Maps like traffic awareness and avoidance, and Google can build those services because of the information it gets from Google Maps, Latitude, etc, information to which Apple didn’t really get full access.

Enter the need for Apple’s Maps app. The amount of data that a company gets from having local awareness in your pocket at all times is huge, and no company as large as Apple can afford to simply give all of that information on the location and travel patterns of its users just because Google Maps is the best product right now. Every company needs to have its own solution, which is a huge reason behind Microsoft’s eagerness to partner with Nokia, and combine Bing Maps with Nokia Maps. And, it’s why Amazon has begun working on building its own maps product. Any mobile company that is selling you a platform needs to be able to mine your location data, and control that data, because Google’s ideas for what can be done with that data may be very different from what Apple can offer.

Apple needed its own maps app, because while it may be limited right now, even it will get better over time. And, during that improvement process, the effort that the most engaged Apple users will expend to help fix the software, and the data Apple will get from casual users will be enormously valuable for the company. More importantly, it will be data that Google doesn’t get. That alone is a huge benefit for Apple, and will continue to generate valuable data into the years ahead where Apple’s Maps app will continue to improve, and the millions and millions of iOS users will continue to give back to the effort.


Apple bungled the launch. There’s no questioning that. Even a small thing, like adding the Beta tag to Maps would have helped a lot to mitigate the bad press, and high expectations from users. Apple didn’t do that, and now it has to live with the consequences of putting out an app that maybe wasn't ready for a full release, but needed more help than Apple could provide in-house. The Maps will improve, both through crowd-sourced data, and the new hires that Apple has been pulling in. Eventually, Apple Maps could be a solid product, and there’s a possibility that somewhere (relatively far) down the line, it could even catch up to Google Maps.

Still, one thing is for certain: Google has competition, and that’s a very good thing. Combine the expected improvement in Apple’s Maps, the expected rise in market share for Windows Phone (and therefore the Bing/Nokia Maps), and whatever Amazon comes up with, Google is facing a possibility where it isn’t the defacto choice in mapping on a mobile device. That will push Google to add more to Maps, and all the other players will add more and more in the cycle of competition. Beyond that, each different company pushing harder to make better Maps just adds to the data pool by which other cool apps can be made, like Google's new Field Trip app, Google Now, and other products that benefit from all of the local data. The competition pushes more innovative ways of using the location data to give us cool services, and, that’s something we’re definitely looking forward to.
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