Apple Maps and What’s the Problem

Every iPhone release seems to bring some kind of debacle varying from real to merely a search for clicks on the web by writers. The commentary usually starts with the normal “Apple is finally losing it” to “Apple can do no wrong” and then somewhat sane reality comes in. The iOS maps debacle, which is an iOS issue and not an iPhone issue, looks to be the most valid and worst of them. I’ve followed this one with some interest as I’ve planned to upgrade to the new iPhone.

The issue was driven home a bit to me over the weekend. I was in the northern part of the Cumberland Plateau in Middle Tennessee Sunday looking for two places. One was a place that I’d last visited in my college days and the other one I’d only read about. Along with me were some directions and notes. Neither was a spot you could just plug into a GPS and get directions which admittedly is my normal way of getting somewhere now.

The first spot I found with no problems between good directions and vague memories. It was in fact a more lovely location than I remembered. The second I never found though I drove within a few miles of it. The reason, my directions left out a single turn, a short trip of less than a quarter mile, that meant I never saw the road I was searching for. As a result eventually we gave up and had to abandon the quest for another day.

While driving back home I thought back to when several years ago I learned that at least one major GPS had a mistake on the addresses on the street where I live. The street is a circle, a short loop of about thirty homes. That brand of GPS, or more exactly the map provider they used, had the addresses backwards so that if you followed them you’d likely end up exactly on the opposite side of the circle from where you actually meant to go.

In the daytime this was a  minor issue since the address numbers on the home would tell you that you were in the wrong spot. At night where these numbers were invisible, it wasn’t so clear. More than once someone I’d provided directions to my house wound up knocking on the wrong door or realizing something didn’t look right and calling me while from the street. It’s how I learned there was a problem and for a while I always added the warning when someone visited the first time.

Both of these had the same basic issue. Bad data. The GPS data was beyond my control and I did the only thing I could do, warn visitors not to trust the address on their GPS. The never found place on Sunday was my largely my fault. I could have checked or verified the directions before I left or at least checked a map well enough to have realized something was off in time to get to the right spot. In both cases though the data I had failed me.

The first time I remember using a computer map system to find directions to a place I’d not visited before it told me to use a bridge that no longer existed to cross a river. On a trip in Kentucky a couple years ago a road under construction and not in my GPS caused it so much confusion my GPS actually crashed and had to be restarted. A construction project I drive through several times almost every day has shifted the entrance and exit patterns to a shopping center, college, and mall several times in less than a year and will do so several more before being complete where the pattern will be completely unrelated to the original one.

And that’s the problem Apple is facing with maps. Map data is often inaccurate. Even good data is often behind. It’s so much easier to travel now with GPS data and maps available on demand on your phone. I’ve learned the art of interpreting the GPS, trusting it enough to get me there, but also expecting it to be wrong at times and using common sense.

The bigger issue is that the overall accuracy of the data doesn’t matter. What matters is how the data is where I want to go. All I know is that one of the two sets of directions I used Sunday was wrong. It doesn’t matter if every other one on the site is perfect, I’ll remember the one that was wrong and never trust them the same way again. Right now that’s what people think about Apple’s maps

It doesn’t really matter where it might be wrong because it will always be a little wrong somewhere and each time I or someone I know gets wrong directions that will be reinforced. I’ll probably take a long time before I trust Apple’s maps to get me there which might be the biggest problem they face now. Apple has to make maps that work not as well as Google, but better and for long enough that everyone forgets how bad a start they got off to.