Apple's Lost Mapportunity: How Did A Tech Star Lose Its Way?

Apple’s mojo over the years has come from its knack for releasing products that aren’t the first, but are the best.

Its highly anticipated new Apple Maps offering is neither.

Apple’s latest mobile operating system, iOS 6, has replaced Google Maps with Apple Maps, which many users gripe is an inferior product that misplaces airports, omits entire towns, loses buildings and has even renamed Berlin. It’s the opposite of what’s come to be expected from a company known for taking its time to launch products that, though late to market, boast intuitive, beautifully designed features that “just work.”

So what went wrong? How did Apple lose its way with Maps?

Experts attribute Maps’ shortcomings to the Cupertino company’s reliance on a patchwork of mapping data culled from myriad sources, noting also that Apple may have underestimated the challenge of mapping the world’s lanes and landmarks. The “half-baked” Apple Maps still needs more time, more people and better information, analysts say. Whether it will get those ingredients is another question.

Apple acknowledges that its maps service is “a major initiative” that it is “just getting started with,” yet the risk for Apple is that Maps has only so many chances to help users find their way before they tell it to get lost.

“This could backfire on [Apple] and could create all kinds of consumer resentment,” said Yankee Group analyst Carl Howe. “They’re really going to have to get the ship righted quickly because there are so many alternatives for users.”

Mike Dobson, founder of mapping consultancy TeleMapics, sums up Apple Maps’ problem with one four-letter word: data.

Like a designer trying to create a single garment out of pieces from a dozen different creators, Apple has tried to stitch together a cohesive map using information and services licensed from some 20 sources, each with varying degrees of accuracy and their own system for classifying locations. What one company considers Palo Alto, another might call San Jose. Ultimately, it’s the user who’s left confused.

“Because Apple has licensed data from companies, not created it, they have to do the mixing [of the data], and it’s in mixing that data that mis-associations have occurred,” said Dobson. “They’re taking data from disparate sources, who haven’t classified the data in the same way and may not have had the correct geographic location, and they’re blending them together in the hope that by attaching one map to someone else’s map, it’ll all fit together. It just doesn’t.”

“It appears to me that they seriously underestimated the size of this challenge,” Dobson added. “It’s obvious to me that the first time humans ever saw parts of Apple’s maps is when users looked at it in iOS 6.”

Google tried the same mixing method when it first created its own map service, but quickly realized that building reliable, up-to-date maps required Google to be the source of its own data, notes Dobson. Google launched a fleet of Street View cars, trikes and snowmobiles to drive the roads it showed on its maps and ensure the maps’ appearance matched the streets’. Five million miles of driving have gone into Google Maps and the Street View team updates its information regularly.

Knowing that no single company can match the manpower of millions of users, Google built an infrastructure through which to crowdsource information from its users, who have mapped remote areas for Google using Google Map Maker and send Google thousands of corrections a day.

So long as Apple outsources its data collection and relies on software rather than real-world scanning and human analysis, Apple Maps will fall short of Google Maps, Dobson predicts.

“Apple needs to learn what Google learned a long time ago: They also started down the algorithmic path…but Google had an awakening and realized it needed Street View and human operatives to be sure things were where they were supposed to be on the map,” said Dobson. “You have to have, in some way, boots on the ground.”

Apple is already angling to turn its millions of iPhone users into “boots on the ground." People can report errors directly to Apple via the Maps app, and GPS data from their phones can help Apple monitor the status of streets.

“Maps is a cloud-based solution and the more people use it, the better it will get,” an Apple spokeswoman said in a statement. “We appreciate all of the customer feedback and are working hard to make the customer experience even better.” While that GPS data might detect one-way streets, detours and skinny alleyways, Dobson said it can’t provide the same detailed information Street View collects about everything beside the road, from street signs and addresses to speed limits and business locations.

At the same time that it seeks to turn users into data-gatherers, Apple is also aggressively trying to hire maps engineers: There are 18 openings for maps engineers listed on Apple’s website. Tellingly, 15 of those positions were posted this summer.

By comparison, Google relies on hundreds of people to map a single country.

Some analysts say Apple should be out shopping rather than staffing up. Though Apple, which has never made a multi-billion dollar acquisition, has historically preferred buying small companies, experts suggest the company should buy a mapping service rather than attempt to build one. With over $117 billion in cash, it can certainly afford to do so.

“Trying to reinvent the wheel with in-house talent and some acquired talent is a long road,” said Chris Silva, an analyst with the Altimeter Group. “And if they were concerned about getting Maps to market in a rapid fashion, then an outright acquisition might have been the way to do that.”

An element of corporate hubris may be hindering Apple’s mapping service, and tech entrepreneur and blogger Anil Dash argues Maps’ troubled debut stems not only from a dearth of data, but a lack of concern for the user.

“Apple made this maps change despite its shortcomings because they put their own priorities for corporate strategy ahead of user experience. That's a huge change for Apple in the post-iPod era, where they've built so much of their value by doing the hard work as a company so that things could be easy for users,” wrote Dash in his blog.

Even if Apple users might have trouble finding their way to Paddington Station or Stratford-upon-Avon (Both are absent from Apple Maps.), it’s doubtful that will keep them from the Apple Store.

Michael Gartenberg, research director at the Gartner Group, predicts Apple Maps’ shortcomings won’t decrease demand for the iPhone 5, and counters Apple Maps is actually an upgrade from Google Maps for some users (particularly drivers who can use its turn-by-turn navigation tool).

People are “still lining up around the block to buy the iPhone 5,” said Gartenberg. “It [Apple Maps] doesn’t strike us as something that will have a lot of impact, especially when Apple says, ‘hey, it’s our first stab at it and we’re going to get better.’ Apple does have pretty good track record of introducing things and improving on them quickly.”


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