Why Apple has missed the mark with iOS 6 Maps

iOS users' loss could be Android's gain

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In common with everyone else, I spent Wednesday night attempting to DDoS Apple's servers by hammering them with update requests for all my iOS devices, plus all the applications, plus the odd Mac system update too. iOS 6 is, by and large, brilliant. I love shared Photo Streams. iMessage finally works how I expected it would. Panoramas are great.

But there's one little problem: Maps. In short, it's the most half-cooked piece of software that Apple has released in my memory, which goes back far longer than I'd care to admit. Worse than Ping? I think so: Ping was, after all, easy to ignore.

Maps, on the other hand, is one of the core features of any mobile phone, and Apple has completely fluffed it.

Putting it bluntly, the maps on iOS are now so second rate that they're a key advantage for Android, and one that I would expect Google to exploit as ruthlessly as possible.

f you live in a major US city, I'm sure Apple's maps are OK. You now get turn-by-turn navigation, which is great, and while flyover mode looks like a novelty at first, it's actually a pretty smart way of orienting yourself.

Blurry maps and trapped streets

Outside the US, though, things are a little different. In London, the satellite images are decent enough, but weirdly the names of places are often slightly archaic. Step outside the M25, and the satellite images become blurry, pixellated, useless nonsense.

The place names get worse (calling Daventry "Leamington" won't win many friends in the Midlands). Businesses placed on the map seem to have been drawn from out of date data, in some cases fifteen years out of date.

Weirdly, it even incorporates trap streets that Google got rid of years ago. Search for Woodland Way in Canterbury. See Newark Street at the end? Doesn't exist. If the satellite images were any good, you could see it going through two houses.

What Apple has done is concentrate on the engineering first, and the data second – and that's precisely the wrong way round for mapping. The Maps app is nicer to use than the Google equivalent on Android, integrating well with Siri (try telling Siri to "take me home" and you'll see what I mean) and although it has plenty of critics, I actually prefer the look of the maps themselves.

IOS 6 Maps
Will Apple improve its new Maps?

But in relying primarily on TomTom data for its locations, as it appears to have done, it's pitching arguably the weakest set of location data against the most extensive and accurate map set in the world. Google has spent billions on gathering data about locations, and constantly keeps it up to date.

It also has a massive pool of Android users which it constantly looks to get location data from, with its location-related products giving users the chance to improve data by reviewing places, marking them as closed, and feeding back inaccuracies. This is one area where the weight of numbers of Android users could prove to be telling, because almost all of them will use Google Maps.

In the short term, iOS users who want accurate location data can simply use the Google Maps website. Google even suggests you add the site to your home screen when you first visit it on an iPhone, and the help screen cheekily notes that it's "the same Google Maps, now in your mobile browser" – a clear poke at the absence of Google Maps from iOS.

iOS Maps looks like what it is: something cobbled together fast from multiple sources of variable quality. And the problem is that for a core part of a mobile operating system, that's nowhere near good enough.

An original version of this article originally appeared as a blog post on Ian Betteridge's blog Technovia