Josh Parnham

iOS 6 Maps - A Wobbly Foundation For The Future

Now that the dust has settled on the whole iOS Maps issue, I thought it would be appropriate to formulate some of my own ideas. We’re all aware of the initial rush of complaints and anger after iOS 6 initially launched, the tech press announcing that 2012 would be the year of ‘Mapgate’ (because they can’t go a single year without one of those). To a similar vein, it’s being called Apple’s ‘worst software product yet’, and a tumblr blog curating the best ‘fails’ has gone viral. However, I believe that this release doesn’t deviate from Apple’s traditional behavior, and is actually quite a logical move (in the long run).

Speculation has been rife about the exact reason to why Apple decided to stray from Google Maps, the most widely accepted opinion right now being that the two companies simply couldn’t come to an agreement - whether it be Apple’s hesitance to include ads or Google’s inability to provide vector maps & turn-by-turn, I don’t believe we’ll find out the real reason for a long time. What we do know for certain however, is that Apple has been buying up mapping companies for many years now (Placebase, Poly9 and finally C3 Technologies) - suggesting to me that they’ve been planning this split for quite a while.

As we’ve been shown many times before, Apple values very highly its ability to be in control of every single aspect of their products - relying on third parties for core features is something they see as a great danger. Furthermore, unlike their once all-powerful rival, Apple is fairly ferocious when it comes to cutting off support for products they deem to be ‘legacy’. They do this in situations where they believe that it will result in long term benefits for their products. This however comes with the unfortunate side effect being that users (and developers) are forced to use these new products (even when sticking with the old product is much more convenient). Some examples off the top of my head:

  1. Ditching the Floppy Disk - initially, people were skeptical about Apple’s intentions with their signal to rid the world of the Floppy Drive, and although the transition period to USB was sometime difficult, everyone universally agrees now that it was indeed the correct decision.
  2. The Carbon to Cocoa transition - any long time Mac developer undoubtedly remembers Apple’s gradual push to shift developers away form the Carbon APIs to Cocoa - a long and sometimes difficult battle which seems to be coming to an end with many Carbon API deprecations in OS X Mountain Lion.
  3. Intruding the Lightning Port - another somewhat controversial addition to the iPhone 5, the brand new and significantly improved dock connector means that most current accessories (speakers, docks) have been deemed obsolete until upgraded models are brought to market.

Looking back on these changes, it’s obvious now that Apple did the right thing putting their users through some short term inconvenience so that we could all be moved onto the modern equivalent. The Apple Maps change is just like this - they didn’t want to be hindered by technology they deemed ‘legacy’ (raster maps) and thus decided that the best plan moving forward was to bring the entire operation in-house. This also has the added advantage of being able to remove yet another third party dependency - as I alluded to earlier, this is something they strive to do as much as they can.

I recently went on holiday to an area that just barely managed one bar of 3G reception (hovering around -112 dBµV/m in Field Test Mode) and whilst it was difficult to download some media heavy web pages, Apple Maps was consistently lightning quick (due to the much more data efficient vector maps). This has the added benefit of being that it can cache a whole lot more data, so when I couldn’t get any signal at all it was still painless to navigate around.

I feel that with the Maps issue, we’ll look back in a couple of years and agree that Apple made the right decision. This is because the only thing holding Apple Maps back at the moment (and the source for all the complaints), is that the dataset that they use currently is (for most cases) inferior to the dataset it is succeeding. Unfortunately, attempting to match Google Maps in terms of map quality will be an enormous task. However, with corrections already happening at a steady pace, I believe that Apple Maps will eventually come into line with Google Maps in terms of map quality.

I’m not trying to sugar coat anything here, or defend Apple for introducing a sub-par product; it truly is a shame and people’s anger is definitely justified. I however am simply trying to draw parallels to similar moves Apple has made before and encouraging people to not trust everything that read by sensationalist “tech journalists”.

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