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Apple Maps: 18 Months Later

The common theme is that Apple messed up big time when switching to a home-brewed mapping system for iOS 6. It got so bad that Apple even fired a long-time executive, Scott Forstall, although there may have been other reasons that hastened his departure.

No matter. It was quite true that, during the early days, Maps could be quite flaky, and in ways that were easy to document with big, bold, lurid screen shots. So when the 3D view showed a landmark melting into the background, such as Hoover Dam, you just knew Apple would be getting tons of bad publicity. Any instance involving wrong directions or locations simply added to the perception that Maps was a huge miss for Apple.

I suppose if Apple called it a public beta from Day One, and treated the mistakes with a touch of humor, the media wouldn’t have reacted so critically. Maybe offer a prize for the silliest mistake, and invite iOS users to document the worst ills, so Apple could fix them. Don’t take it seriously, and the criticisms would be blunted.

But Apple was serious. Tim Cook was serious in apologizing for the shortcomings, and inviting iPhone and iPad users to download someone else’s software, even Google’s, until things got better.

And get better they did. Even Consumer Reports, no fan of Apple, did a test comparing Apple Maps with Google Maps and found similar levels of accuracy in turn-by-turn directions. As Maps improved, there was one published test, involving some tech journalists residing in San Francisco, showing Apple’s solution delivering more accurate driving instructions than Google’s.

The perception remains that Apple Maps is bad, Google Maps is good. But the truth lies in a gray area where both are imperfect in different ways. I’ve documented situations where Google Maps screwed up big time, but Apple was mostly correct.

Now my scheme for getting directions is old fashioned. So I launch Google Maps on my Mac, have it calculate turn-by-turn directions to a specific location, and print a copy. As I said, old fashioned.

Google has an option to format the directions for printing, and a recent change has resulted in the use of smaller, lighter text with bold entries for the direction of the turn and the name of the street or location. The new formatting makes it difficult to follow without becoming a distracted driver.

It wouldn’t matter quite so much if the directions were accurate, and that’s not always the case.

In contrast, printed directions with Maps for Mavericks are better optimized, with larger, more readable text. Let me tell you that it makes a difference.

Sure, I could simply have Siri read the directions for me through my car’s audio system, and not concern myself with the printed version. But I still prefer the hard copy.

Regardless, if both mapping systems are accurate, the results should be fairly similar. But in my most recent test, getting directions to a kosher-style deli located about 25 miles from my home, delivered somewhat different results from Apple and Google. So Maps offered fewer steps, but a more direct route to the destination. Google offered a more roundabout route, particularly close to my destination, which seemed superfluous.

Understand that the restaurant in question is located near a large shopping center, minutes from a highway, and thus should be fairly simple to reach. That Google offered some indirect steps — and that’s not the first time I’ve encountered such results — made me more more inclined to prefer Apple. And that’s before we get to the superior printing results.

This, however, doesn’t mean that Maps is fixed and is, in all respects, a superior service to Google. But it’s also clear that Apple has invested considerable resources into improving the product, and it shows. But it still may be less accurate in other locations. What’s more, Apple doesn’t provide support for public transit systems, something that’s baked into Google Maps. On an iOS device, Apple merely points you to a third-party app, but that’s changing, since Apple has purchased companies that do provide those services. Perhaps with iOS 8.

The problem with the Apple is bad and Google is good brigade is that they are suspended in time. They simply do not understand that Apple has had 18 months to improve the mapping service, and the results should be evident to anyone who checks out rendering and navigation accuracy. It’s a lot better, and Apple deserves the credit for doing the right thing.

At the same time, the problems with Google’s mapping service deserve more attention. No navigation system is perfect, but Google routinely gets away with this by putting up a “beta” warning when you launch one of their navigation apps for the very first time. They are not, it says in so many words, responsible for errors. If you get lost, therefore, that’s just too bad.

I even encountered that message on an Android smartphone not too long ago, but that’s a nasty fact the media ought to mention. If Google isn’t demonstrating confidence in their product, why should you feel safe in using it?