In recent weeks, a lot has been said about Apple Inc.’s leap into the mapping world. In an effort to free itself from a rocky reliance on a primary competitor, Apple decided to create its own mapping and navigation application. Smart move, one might think, integrate a proprietary mapping application to complement its robust operating system, that would be great. However, it didn’t work (… yet). Negative reviews, generally citing a lack of substance and utility, have been scathing, and shockingly mainstream. The underlying network and database have years of development and construction ahead of them. Stadiums, theaters, and even entire islands, are out of location, or completely omitted. Uncharacteristically, Apple publicly apologized, promoted use of other applications, and has even fired designers and programmers. Kind of a mess, but this mess exposes a couple of important things, especially important to the mapping industry. And with that, I am offering a rare positive review of Apple Maps, from a different perspective.
Four Reasons Apple Maps is Good:
1. Our societal dependence on maps is exposed.
The release of the application, followed by the magnitude of outcry, exposes our societal reliance on mapping applications in 2012. Consumers have become so used to mapping applications (Google, Mapquest, Bing, etc.) giving them directions and information with extremely high accuracy that when this capability is reduced, it becomes stunningly disabling to complete some of the most simple things we take for granted. A mapping application can’t find me a freeway exit with a McDonalds? The bar I’m going to for Happy Hour is a block away in the wrong place? These are things we take for granted in 2012, and expect perfection from it. This is remarkable in itself, and when Apple Maps couldn’t do this the outcry was stunning.
2. Competition is introduced into an important modern day amenity.
Apple entering the mapping world brings another huge player into the mapping game. This only stands to benefit the public in the long term, as I foresee and “arms war” of sorts taking place between Google and Apple. Another player in the game, especially the size of Apple, will force Google, Bing, and others to not fall into complacency, and continue ambitious goals aiming to catalog and map the entire globe. Expect to see mapping applications to improve at even more rapid rate, with increased real time data, improved navigation networks, and better landmarks and points of interest.
3. The difficulty of creating, maintaining, and keeping a good geographic dataset is displayed.
Geographic datasets are dynamic and huge, yet remain one of the more understated achievements of modern society. Mapping and maintaining data on roads, businesses, public spaces, hospitals, etc. is an extreme challenge to even the most robust organizations and individuals. In many circumstances, the second a geographic data point is collected, it is already out of date. People move across the globe all the time, new businesses open and close, buses come and go, rivers meander and flow, and wetlands and forests grow and shrink along with the development around them. Building a comprehensive “map” of everything on Earth is an impossible task, yet many people demand it, not knowing the effort required to provide such services.
4. Even with the best design, you need good data.
I admit, I like the design of Apple Maps. (see Bing… and you’ll agree) The 3D buildings are great, the navigation application looks very slick, and maps themselves look sharp. However, the good design is quickly lost when you can’t find your way to the nearest bar for a drink, or stadium for a game. Good design is paramount, it brings people in and turns eyes, but you have to keep the map relevant once the admiration of all eye candy fades. An equilibrium between flash and substance must be achieved, or in the end all you have is a nice piece of art to hang on a wall.
All this considered, Apple screwed up and frustrated a lot of people, but everything might be a blessing in disguise. The emergence of another force in the mapping field will only benefit all of us in the end. Keep using Apple Maps, force them to get better, and in effect force the whole field to improve. Just remember, while I say this, if it’s really important to find what you’re looking for, keep using Google.