Apple Maps update

I was pretty scathing about Apples new maps for a variety of reasons: business listings which were mispelled, years out of date or hundreds of metres from where they should be, building outlines that aren’t properly aligned with the street layout, and a whole lot of stuff which is just missing: not just shops but schools, post offices, churches, park names, art galleries.

But the thing I thought was completely unforgiveable was all the missing train and tube stations, including major London stations like Wimbledon and Tottenham Court Road. And there really were a lot of gaps; for example, of the four stations with Wimbledon in the name — Wimbledon, South Wimbledon, Wimbledon Park and Wimbledon Chase — three were absent.

Having complained about it, it seems only fair to report that the stations are reappearing! In fact I think all the ones I’ve checked are now back on the map. There are two things about that I find reassuring: that the maps are improving at all, but also, the fact that the stations seem to have been fixed before a lot of the other problems suggests that someone at Apple has the right priorities.

I think it’s quite interesting, incidentally, the way we’ve been spoiled by Google, to the point where I expect the map on my phone not just to have streets and train stations, but bars and restaurants and cinemas and so on. After all, I managed for most of my life with paper maps that marked none of that stuff — not least because they just didn’t have space for them, unlike zoomable electronic maps. It’s a mark of the scale Apple’s cock-up that they didn’t just fail in comparison to Google: their maps are often inferior to an old fashioned A-Z. Those maps wouldn’t have your local hairdresser, but they did usually have useful landmarks like schools, churches, hospitals, nature reserves and so on.

But the main thing is: Apple’s maps are still pretty feeble in this part of the world, but at least there are signs of improvement. Who knows, in a year they might be as useful as an A-Z, and in two years they might be as useful as Google.

Apple’s new maps: yes, they really are terrible.

I really use the maps on my phone a lot. I’ve found it to be the most surprisingly transformative aspect of having a smartphone: never feeling lost.

So I was slightly worried about Apple replacing Google’s maps in the new version of iOS, but I assumed they knew what they were doing. That it might not be perfect, but it would probably be good enough. So I updated the system.

Obviously the first thing you look at is your own street. And it was a bit disconcerting. The first thing I noticed was a ‘restaurant’ which was actually a food shop and has been out of business for perhaps seven years. There is also an antique shop which no longer exists, and a food shop marked as a petrol station. A car repair place is 250m from where it should be. Completely missing are two restaurants, a café/delicatessen, a clothes shop, a gift shop, a car repair place, a barbers and a post office. And the local primary school.

To be fair, there also four businesses listed correctly.

Now, I don’t actually need every little clothes shop marked on the map, and the data being a year or two out of date is not such a big deal, but still, that’s an awful lot of wrong in a small area. As a comparison, Google has all the businesses marked, up to date and in the right places.

And it’s not a fluke. For example, the ‘food shop marked as a petrol station’: that’s true all over London and seemingly the rest of the UK as well. Almost everything marked with a little petrol pump icon is actually a food shop — although I have also found oil companies, a wholesale kerosene supplier, and a nuclear fuels company. And it’s not just the icons which are wrong; a search for ‘petrol station’ or ‘gas station’ dutifully returns a list of local food shops:

If you’re wondering what real petrol stations are marked as, I checked a few nearby ones; one was marked as a mechanic, two were missing completely.

Irritating but not fatal is the fact that the outlines of buildings in Central London don’t align properly with the roads:

And my favourite find so far is something called the National History Museum in South Kensington.

However, I don’t use maps on the phone as a business directory, primarily. It would be helpful if things like petrol stations, post offices and ATMs were correctly marked, and it’s a step backward that they aren’t; but what really matters is whether I can use the maps for basic navigation. But there’s a bigger problem than a few missing businesses. I checked a few places I regularly visit. If you don’t know the area, it may not be obvious what’s wrong with this picture (apart from yet another corner shop marked as a petrol station):

The clue is ‘Station Road’. Yup, that map is centred on Wimbledon station. There should be a National Rail station, a London Underground station and a tram station marked there — not that Apple’s maps give you any way to distinguish between train stations and tube stations.

Richmond rail and underground stations are also missing. So is Bookham station in Surrey. So is Lambeth North underground. And Notting Hill Gate. And West Dulwich.

I should emphasise: I haven’t done an exhaustive search of London’s transport network, I just checked a few places I happen to use fairly regularly. And without trying very hard I’ve found six missing stations.

A map having a bit less detail, or missing a few restaurants: that’s mildly annoying. Not being able to find petrol stations and post offices: genuinely inconvenient.  But a map with a significant percentage of train stations missing is severely broken. Broken enough that you can no longer rely on it for anything important.

I suppose I should just be grateful that the roads themselves seem to be mainly in the right places — but I suspect we mainly have Ordnance Survey to thank for that, after they released so much data under Creative Commons-type licensing.

Steve Jobs RIP

On the desk in front of me are a computer and an external hard drive for backup. The computer is a 24″ aluminium iMac from 2007, and the hard drive is a Western Digital My Book Pro from about the same time.

The iMac is 4 years old, so the novelty value has long worn off, but I still get a degree of satisfaction from looking at it: it’s an obviously high quality object, well-made and well-proportioned. The design, with the whole computer and screen suspended from an angled metal foot, might be precarious if it was done badly; but in fact it is solid as a rock, and the angle of the screen adjusts easily but stays where you put it. The Apple logo on the front is the same glossy black as the screen surround and contrasts with the soft, non-glossy brushed aluminium of the body.

The hard drive is designed in broadly the same style: it’s a plain metal box formed out of rounded rectangles, with a simple glowing blue ring on the front. But the metal doesn’t have the same quality of finish as the computer: it’s greyer and slightly shinier, and it’s held together by an ugly plastic rim that immediately makes the whole thing look cheap. And it’s flimsier, and it’s been manufactured via a cheaper process; I think the iMac was machined out of a block of aluminium, whereas the hard drive looks like it was made by bending sheets of metal into shape. And the logo etched onto the side is a bit ugly. And the grille on the top is cut with an odd pattern of square holes and slots which is presumably intended to be attractive but just looks like design for the sake of design. And having managed to find, download and install the right driver to make the button on the front work, it now communicates with me via an arbitrary and completely unintuitive system of flashing lights: if the light is going round in a circle, that means one thing; flashing means something else; a steady light means something different again. If I ever need to know what they mean, I look it up in the manual, then immediately forget again.

Don’t get me wrong, the Western Digital drive is entirely good enough for my purposes and I would cheerfully recommend it to a friend. And despite my nitpicking, it’s not a hideous object, it’s a normal-looking bit of consumer electronics. I’ve seen much worse. But when Apple made the iMac, they didn’t settle for ‘good enough’, ‘not hideous’ and ‘normal looking’. They made something excellent.

I know Steve Jobs didn’t personally design my iMac. The credit for that has to go to Jony Ive and his team. But Jony Ive was already at Apple before Jobs came back, and the company wasn’t winning any design awards. And I bet there are talented designers working at Samsung and Nokia and Sony and even Microsoft. But what Jobs did was create the environment where design is able to survive. He made sure that the good work of designers was not always being undermined by the pressure to ship products quicker, to make them cheaper, to include badly-executed features so you can list them on the box. I bet there are amazing, beautiful prototypes sitting in labs at HP and Sony and Samsung; but at Steve Jobs’s Apple they were still beautiful when they reached the customer.

William Morris said ‘Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful’. Under Jobs, Apple made products that were more beautiful — something that seemed to irritate a lot of technology people, who apparently regard the quest for beauty as suspicious and potentially subversive. But they also made products that were more useful, because Jobs understood that it doesn’t matter how many things a device can do; it only becomes more useful if you actually use it, and you only use it if it’s easy enough to use.

iPhone 4 quickie

Apple’s publicity seems to be focussing on the video chat, and that’s all very Jetsons and everything, but I don’t suppose I would often find myself in a situation where I wanted to video chat with another person who also had an iPhone 4 and we were both in WiFi hotspots.

But I’m really really keen to have a look at this new 326ppi display. If displays are genuinely crossing the threshold where they no longer look pixelated, where they look like real print, well, that is very exciting. And ingrate that I am, I immediately want to know: when am I going to be able to buy a great big 326ppi monitor for my computer?


A passing thought on the iPad: handheld ≠ mobile

I think one reason people have a hard time visualising how the iPad will fit into their lives is that they assume it will mainly be a mobile device; i.e. something they will actually carry around with them all the time.

I don’t think that needs to be true for it to be successful. I think it’s significant that Apple had a sofa on stage for the product launch.

Despite the fact that there is more than one real computer in the house, I often use the iPhone at home to look things up on the internet or check my email. Because if you just want to do something quickly, the device which is in the same room beats the one which is somewhere else; but also because sometimes it’s nice to do all that stuff from the comfort of a sofa.

Nintendo recently brought out a larger version of the DS, which might not make sense if you believe that a handheld device is all about portability. But it makes sense to me, because I don’t actually use my DS on the train or waiting for a bus; I sometimes take it on holiday but otherwise it doesn’t leave the house. It’s still nice to be able to just pick it up and play it anywhere. And somehow it feels like less of an effort — you can pick it up, play for a few minutes, put it down — it’s a more casual, comfortable experience than using a ‘real’ games console.

I think the iPad could be a successful product just to have around the house, something to pick up and use for a minute or two as an internet device or for casual gaming; something you can curl up on a sofa with. Something that never leaves the house, except perhaps to take on holiday.

Some people will carry them around, of course, and no doubt people will find lots of ingenious uses for the thing — it is a blank slate — but that may not be the norm.

I know what the Apple Tablet is for

Among all the speculation about the forthcoming Apple Tablet/iSlate/iPad has been a thread of uncertainty: no one is really sure what it’s for; what niche it fills.

Everyone has been missing the obvious: it’s an e-reader for birdwatchers.

I have two field guides on my iPhone: butterflies and birds. I haven’t had a chance to use the bird guide in earnest yet, but the butterfly guide has been useful several times. You never know when you might see a butterfly, and when you do, you need the information on hand immediately if you’re going to have a chance to identify it. I would happily fill my phone with other field guides — trees, flowers, fungi, dragonflies — just so I could always have that information to hand.

So that’s good. But but but: the screen is not big enough. A real, paper field guide would have several species, each with several illustrations, and distribution maps, and text, all on the same double-page spread. The phone has space for one or maybe two illustrations per screen; that means an awful lot of scrolling backwards and forwards to compare species.

Until screens get much much higher resolution, you’re never going to fit as much information onto a screen as you can on a printed page; but for these purposes, any increase in screen size is a bonus. And no, even with 16 levels of grey, an electronic paper display is not going to cut it.

And it’s not just field guides: there’s a new app for the iPhone that, for £25, has 1:50,000 scale Ordnance Survey maps of, for example, the South-East of England. Always having an OS map with you whenever you go for a country walk: how cool is that? Well, it’s a damn sight cooler with a 10″ screen than it is with a 3½″ one.

So, since the Tablet is going to be aimed at birdwatchers and ramblers, I confidently predict it will be a rugged, waterproof device designed for outdoor use.

No, just kidding.

OK, so the examples that spring to mind for me are rather specific, and Steve Jobs isn’t about to launch an incredible new product aimed specifically at birdwatchers and hikers. Sadly. But really, I think people might be overthinking this. After all, when is a bigger screen not a useful thing to have?

» iTunes links: butterflies, birds, OS maps.

The iPhone, Top Trumps, and widescreen TV

The BBC’s tech blog has posted a piece about the new iPhone, and, inevitably, the comments are full of people whining about how the iPhone is rubbish because it lacks some feature that competing phones have, or has inferior specs, and that people only buy it because of they are stupid fashion victims. 

This comment provides a particularly classic example:

What about MMS support -sure no one really uses MMS, but it’s kind of a missing feature don’t you think?

I’m not sure that people outside the UK ever had the pleasure of playing ‘Top Trumps’. The way it worked was that you had a themed deck of cards, which might be cars or footballers or whatever. And each card was scored with various qualities:

from the Pointless Museum

You had to turn over your next card and try to win your opponent’s card by challenging him to beat a particular score. With this set, the Horror Top Trumps (which I remember playing at primary school, incidentally), the scores are out of 100, so it’s very obvious that if it’s your turn to play and you have Dracula, you should challenge on ‘Horror Rating’. The winner gets both cards and gets to play again. Naturally enough, different sets had different kinds of scores. I assume that for Prehistoric Monsters, older is better.

from the Pointless Museum

This was all good clean fun, but it wasn’t a very subtle or nuanced way of evaluating which prehistoric monster (or sports car, or footballer) was really ‘better’. And I can’t help feeling that all those BBC blog commenters are just playing technology Top Trumps.

The idea that a technology product is more than the sum of its features is not a new insight. I’m just one of the many people who have been banging on about it for years. But it’s always worth reiterating because  those who are most fascinated by technology, and are the most vociferous about it, are exactly the kind of people who don’t get it. They are, in fact, the kind of people who would probably rather enjoy playing Tech Specs Top Trumps.

I have a favourite new example of the distance between those technology enthusiasts and the bulk of the public. I watched the Champions’ League final in a pub in Wales. The football was on a nice big widescreen plasma TV, and the signal was coming from Sky, so I know it was being broadcast in widescreen — but the picture was distorted. Presumably, at some stage there had been something on TV which was in a 3:4 ratio and they had changed the TV settings so that the picture was stretched to fill the screen, and had never changed it back.

I tried to explain what was wrong and offered to fix it, but unsurprisingly the barman was reluctant to hand over the remote control to a random stranger just before the biggest match of the season started. So Wayne Rooney looked even shorter and squatter than usual, and the ball was oval.

In other words, they’ve spent many hundreds of pounds on a TV, and however much it costs to get a Sky subscription for a pub, and are using it to distort the picture and cut off the edges. Because they can’t tell the difference? Because they don’t care? Or the most worrying possibility: perhaps they think that’s what widescreen is — a normal picture, stretched a bit.

There are probably many many people, all around the country, doing the same thing: using their expensive new equipment to distort the TV they watch. And the biggest favour you could do those people is not to provide them with more features: it’s to make sure they can use the features they have. If that’s true for something as simple as a TV, it’s even more true for a sophisticated smartphone. Ease of use and good interface design are so much more important for most people than the sheer number of features.

Look, it’s a good thing that there are people who go over these kind of technical specifications with a fine tooth comb and compare products against each other. It’s a valid kind of critique and provides useful information. But brandishing these numbers as though they are irrefutably The Final Answer is like saying “obviously the woolly rhinoceros is better than the archaeopteryx, because it weighs more”.

» All the pictures are taken from The Pointless Museum.

What I want to see at WWDC

WWDC, for those of you who don’t avidly follow Apple’s annual publicity cycle [for shame!], is the Worldwide Developer’s Conference. Which is being held next week in California.

Everyone’s expecting a new iPhone with slightly better specs, but I’m not quite geeky enough to get excited about wireless data standards. Obviously faster=better, but it’s not suddenly going to persuade me that I can afford to shell out £270 for a phone. What I think is potentially much more exciting is to see new iPhone app demonstrations. That has potential to have a real ooh factor.

What I would like to see is an Apple e-reader. I have become more and more convinced that sooner or later we will be doing much more of our reading on some kind of handheld device; much as I like books as physical objects, I have too many of them already. And it would be great to be able to take six or seven books on holiday with me — or just around town — without the bulk and weight of dead trees. And to be able to read newspapers and blogs on the tube.

This device doesn’t have to be made by Apple, of course, but I’d love to see what they could achieve if they tried. The only problem is that there isn’t even the hint of a smidgen of a whiff of it on any of the Apple gossip sites. And I suspect that the nice people at Apple have had their hands full recently with Leopard and the iPhone. 

» Transgenic Apple, posted to Flickr by dujarandille. I’s not actually transgenic, I don’t think, that’s just what the photographer has called it.

New iTunes icon for Leopard: Aphex Twin

Some time ago I made a whole set of icons for iTunes based on old 45s because I think that the Apple one just looks a bit cheap and tacky. I’m now using Leopard, the latest version of Apple’s OS, and Leopard uses super-large icons so that they look good in coverflow mode. So I felt the need to make a new version for myself.

Aphex Twin iTunes icon

This time, instead of old soul and reggae labels, I thought I’d make an homage to one of my favourite albums of all time: Aphex Twin’s Selected Ambient Works 85-92. I don’t listen to this kind of bleepy music as much as I used to, but this album is about as good as it gets. It was released as a double LP, and I’ve used side C for the icon because that’s the side with a track called Ageispolis on it. You can get it as an .icns file here.

computer problems

I’m having serious computer problems—like not being able to turn it on—so posting is liable to be sporadic. Just fyi.

EDIT: I’ve seized the opportunity while my computer is running of posting a new picture at Clouded Drab.

Weird computer problems

I am for the moment busy trying to get my stupid computer to not be a complete pain in the arse.

It does this weird thing where I ask it to sleep and instead it messes up one of the other system functions (Exposé and Dashboard and so on, for the Mac users). When it doesn’t just fuck everything up completely.

I’ve even done a basic reinstall of the system software. Didn’t help.

New new iTunes icons

I thought it would be fun to make a whole set, with different record labels. I’ve added Trojan, Upsetter, Chess, Apple and Sun:

You can get a zip of them as .icns files here.

Yet again with the iTunes icons

I decided that while the coloured vinyl was ok on its own, the addition of a coloured note was just too garish.

The anti-aliasing round the note needs tweaking, but I think it looks pretty good. Better than the original:

EDIT: OK, I’ve tweaked it. Here’s the final version:

For Mac users, there’s a zip of those designs I got as far as making into .icns files here. To change the iTunes icon: rename whichever icon you prefer as ‘iTunes.icns’. Then you need to quit iTunes, right-click it in the Finder and choose ‘show package contents’. In the ‘Resources’ folder, replace the original iTunes.icns file with your new one (but save a copy of the original somewhere just in case).

Jonathan Ive and the post-gadget aesthetic

Some more thoughts on design in the tech industries. This time, the slow death of what I think of as the ‘gadget aesthetic’. The gadget aesthetic was a product of the novelty and glamour of electronics; it fetishizes the look of hi-tech gizmos. Lots of buttons, lots of LEDs, curvy moulded plastic, metallic-looking silver plastic:

This is the same approach as the set-designers for Star Trek: if you’re going to have some actor peering at a panel and saying “Captain! The dilithium crystal containment field is coming out of phase!”, then you really need the panel to look important. So you cover it in glowing panels and screens and buttons.

But now I think people have got past that; they want their consumer electronics to look stylish, but not necessarily in the Star Trek manner. One of the reasons Jonathan Ive has won all those awards for Apple is that he completely understands that. I’m writing this on an iMac which has less buttons visible than just about any other electrial product in the room – the clock/radio, the camera, even the fan. It is less visibly complex than the Anglepoise next to it.

Apple only have about 5% of the personal computer market, so perhaps you can’t look at their computers and assume that the design taps into a profound cultural shift. But they do have an overwhelming market share in mp3 players, and the iPod has that same post-gadget aesthetic. It’s not that it’s somehow trying to look anti-technology, but it isn’t trying to look ‘hi-tech’. It’s not trying to look like it fell through a wormhole from 2037. It has no LEDs or glowing buttons; the controls it does have are reduced to a circle of a slightly different colour on the front of the machine.

None of this is exactly rocket-science, and there have been thousands of words written about Apple’s cool minimalism. But on the specific point of a post-gadget aesthetic, Apple’s competitors either don’t get it, don’t know how to do it, or aren’t trying.

Here’s an iPod competitor, the 20GB Creative mp3 player:

I’m sure it does a good job of playing music. Ad someone has put some thought into making it look attractive. But look at the styling. The glowing buttons, the glowing outline, the moulded plastic, and the futuristic typeface on ‘Creative’ —  it looks like a communicator from Star Trek.

And here’s the ‘iriver H320 Lite 20GB MP3 Player’, which is, i anything, even more mired in the same culture of making products look futuristic:

You’ve got shiny glowing buttons, another futuristic typeface, the use of techy jargon (‘multi-codec jukebox’). It’s quite a cool thing and I’m sure a lot of people will look at it and want it, but it’s cool in a gadgety way. Next to the iPod it looks like it’s trying too hard.

One more example. Compare the silvery, swooshy Microsoft Wireless Laser Mouse 6000 to Apple’s plain white wireless Mighty Mouse. They have nearly the same functionality (both have four-way scrolling; the Mighty Mouse has four buttons to the MSLM6000’s five), but the Mighty Mouse doesn’t feel the need to advertise how sophisticated it is.

At the moment all this stuff is so closely associated with Apple that it’s just perceived as Apple branding. In fact, the Nintendo DS Lite, which has a very similar kind of simple, ungadgety style, is often described as looking like it was designed by Apple.

But my feeling is that these companies are just ahead of the curve. There will probably always be a market for techy geek chic, for games consoles, computers and mobile phones decorated with das blinkenlichten. But electronic hardware is not the sole preserve of geeks anymore, and I think tech companies are slowly starting to understand that. Apple has always been the less geeky alternative to Microsoft, and Nintendo have always been more family-oriented and less focussed on hardcore gamers than their competitors. And generally speaking, both of them have been outcompeted, and have had rather poor market share.

But the runaway dominance of the iPod, and the fact that the DS is outselling the more powerful but more traditionally gamer-orientated PSP, raise the possibility that the non-geek dollar is finally starting to have a serious impact. I think we’re in an interesting time when a lot of companies know that they need to make their products more desirable to a broader range of customers, but there’s a lot of groping around to work out how to do it. The mobile phone companies have had to deal with this quicker than anyone, and they haven’t done a bad job; from the time that mobile phone use exploded, it probably only took them about five years to come up with a proper girly phone, for example. And there is a huge range of designs available, even if they often tend to be somewhat similar in overall look. So if the much-rumoured iPhone does ever materialise, it’ll be interesting to see what Ive and Apple can do when competing in an already well-developed market where the importance of design is understood. I’m sure there’s scope for a much better UI, for a start, but what really interests me is whether he can come up with a look for the phone which stands out from the crowd. If he does I’m sure it’ll be the least futuristic looking mobile on the market.

eBooks on iPod?

There’s a rumour doing the rounds that the next iPod will be designed for reading as well as music and video. It remains to be seen whether that happens, and indeed whether the iPod is well-suited for reading (as compared, for example, to the more specialised Sony Reader).

Whether or not their time has come, I do think that electronic reading devices are potentially exciting. It’s not a new idea, of course, and none of the previous attempts have succeeded, not least because the competing technology – the book – is so very good at its job. A book is already small, light, very high-resolution, has a simple intuitive user interface and doesn’t need power. For you to spend a few hundred pounds on an electronic version, it’s going to have be pretty damn good. One advantage of building it into a music player is that it gives people a reason to buy it.

So if books are so good anyway, why do I think it’s a good idea? Firstly there’s the capacity. It’s not just one book, it’s a whole library. Even just for reading on a commute you might want to have a choice of three or four books. If you were going away for a few months, you could take hundreds of titles. You could keep reference books on there. Assuming that the system was able to read generic text files, HTML and PDF, you wouldn’t even need to buy all the books from Apple; just think of the enormous wealth of stuff which is out of copyright.Project Gutenberg has 18,000 books available for download.

But the other point is that it doesn’t have to be books. You could plug it in every night and have your computer automatically update it with all your favourite blogs and news services. You might even be willing to pay a modest subscription to get the newspaper(s) of your choice automatically downloaded onto your iPod to read on the train.

he just doesn’t get it

Creative have launched a competitor to the video-capable iPod. It looks rather like the iPod except clumsier and uglier. But this is the bit I thought was extraordinary:

Creative are touting the Zen as a far more powerful player than Apple’s offering, with additional functions such as FM radio and a built-in mic.

“We are focused on the technology,” he said. “This is still a technology marketplace.”

“This is the key difference between a technology company and a branding company,” he said, taking a side-swipe at Apple’s successful marketing campaign for its iPod.

Firstly – the iPod does what it does very well. What makes Mr Sim think people want additional functions? But more to the point – how many millions of units do Apple have to ship, and what proportion of the market do they have to win, before their competitors come to terms with the fact that all consumer products are brand items, and bought as much because people like them as for what they can do? We’re not talking about coal-fired power stations or aircraft carriers here, we’re talking about something that people are buying for entertainment, that they carry around every day in their pocket. Car companies get it – that people want cars that look nice, have the right associations (yes, Mr Sim, that’s branding) and that they enjoy owning. If that’s true for a £20,000 car, it’s certainly true for a £200 mp3 player. That’s not much more than a pair of trainers. If the chairman of Nike suggested that branding was unimportant, we’d all assume he’d lost his marbles.

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