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I was pretty scathing about Apples new maps for a variety of reasons: business listings which were mispelled, years out of date or hundreds of metres from where they should be, building outlines that aren’t properly aligned with the street layout, and a whole lot of stuff which is just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

Syncing non-Amazon books between Kindle and iPhone

One of the nice things about the Kindle is that it syncs with the Kindle app on iOS, so that you can read a few pages on your phone when you don’t have the Kindle with you.

But I thought that it only worked with books bought from Amazon and not those, for example, downloaded from Project Gutenburg. Which was annoying.

However, I have discovered that there is a way of making it work. Perhaps this is common knowledge, but I only found it by accident so I thought I’d share it.

The trick, such as it is, is to email the file to your Send-to-Kindle email address, which is the address used to add personal documents to the Kindle. It’s in the form name_xxx@kindle.com and you can find it in the Kindle settings.

Once it appears on the Kindle, it will also be available as an archived item in the Kindle app, and it should sync across devices in the normal way.

The syncing doesn’t work if you add the files to the iOS Kindle app via iTunes, or download them direct to the Kindle from the web, for example via the Project Gutenberg Magic Catalog, or if you put them onto the Kindle via USB.

Reading on my phone

Life of Pi by Yann Martel was a free download from Apple as part of a Christmas promotion, and as such it’s the first full-length novel I have read on my iPhone. I’m almost as interested in the reading experience as the book itself.

The major conclusion is that the experience is at least good enough. The high-resolution display of the iPhone 4 makes a difference, I think, not least because you can set the type size as small as your eyesight can stand without compromising the readability.

Perhaps it’s not as immersive as a book; I find I need quiet to read these days more than I used to, but it’s especially true with the iPhone, I think, that I need good reading conditions to concentrate. I noticed a slightly increased tendency to find myself skipping a bit, a slight tendency to anticipate the end of the ‘page’ and go ahead without fully processing the last few words. It may be that I do that anyway, but that it’s more obvious when the pages are shorter. I think a bigger screen would be better as a reading experience, but it’s a great advantage not having to carry an extra device; the phone is ideal for snatching a few minutes of reading during the day.

As for the novel itself: I enjoyed it, but I can see why some people find it quite annoying. It is very high-concept and I don’t know that its cleverness manages to avoid being glib.

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?

I’m back

Or more precisely, my computer’s back from the repair people. Yay.

A couple of observations about that: Time Machine (Apple’s automatic backup software) is just brilliant. Having your computer die by inches is so much less stressful when you know you can rescue everything. And actually it works even better than I realised: my computer came back with Leopard installed on its new blank hard drive, because for licensing reasons they can only install the version of the OS that the machine shipped with. But you just pop it the Snow Leopard install disc, select ‘Restore from Time Machine backup’, and a couple of hours later everything is back to just the way it was before. I had to re-enter a few software license codes for some reason, but that’s no great hardship.

It also means that I’ve been using the iPhone as my main computer. And it is almost comical how much powerful it is than the first computer I owned; it has something like 50 times the RAM and 200 times the storage capacity. Although the iPhone’s screen does only have half as many pixels as my original 13″ monitor.

But power isn’t everything, and if I needed to write a long essay, I would still prefer to use that old IIcx, with its keyboard and its slightly larger screen. Which is the main reason I haven’t blogged much since the computer started dying: it is just so much more like work when you have to type on the phone’s virtual keyboard, and you can only see a few lines of text.

Even the things which the phone is better suited to, like checking email, using the internet, reading RSS feeds — browsing, basically; stuff that doesn’t require much typing — they are so much nicer on a proper computer. It’s partially the screen size, but also the sheer speed and responsiveness. It is a joy.

» The image is ‘Macintosh IIcx Owner’s Guide, Page 38’, © Jeff Jackson and used under a CC by-nd licence. Though having said that, surely it must be © Apple Inc.? Anyway. It seemed appropriate.

More on iPhone field guides

This was originally posted in response to a comment from Rik, but I decided to bump it up into a separate post because it got quite long. He said, in response to my post about the iPhone guide to British & Irish butterflies:

So in an ideal world you’d be able to take a photo of butterfly X, touch the screen of the photo to help the software identify where the butterfly is, then get it to phone up a butterfly database which could then send back details to the app of the most likely candidates so you can quickly read up about it.

And I replied:

Your point about ‘where the butterfly is’ is an interesting one: since the iPhone has GPS and knows what time of year it is, I suppose it could theoretically use that information to quickly suggest a list of the most likely species for that area at that time of year. Which would be neat.

There’s a kind of trade-off for field guides between quantity of information and ease of use, so a beginner is often better off with a guide that has fewer species and less information. Otherwise they spend a lot of time looking at species that are extremely unlikely and the process becomes needlessly difficult. Meanwhile the expert who has enough knowledge to sort through the information appreciates having all the detail and the obscure species.

If anything the iPhone potentially exaggerates the problem of having too much information because while there’s the possibility of including more information andmore pictures than in a traditional guide, it’s more difficult to skim through the possibilities than it would be in a book. So finding ways of narrowing down people’s choices, of guiding them through the data, may be one of the key challenges for field guide designers on mobile platforms.

To go back to the GPS example, just being able to quickly eliminate all the species that are not normally found within 100 miles of where you are would be a good start, so if you’re in Kent you’re not looking at species found only in the Scottish highlands. And that would be even more true for a guide that covered a larger area like Europe or the US: imagine how great it would be to have a guide that showed you Spanish butterflies when you were in Spain and Swedish butterflies when you were in Sweden.

‘Butterflies of Britain and Ireland’ on the iPhone

Having written a whole post the other day about how much I wanted field guides on the iPhone and was willing to pay good money for them, I was pleased to hear that a new field guide was available in the App Store: Butterflies of Britain and Ireland (iTunes store link).

It’s an interesting reflection on how much I expect to pay for iPhone apps that a price of £9.99 seemed quite a lot, especially since I just paid £13.49 for a field guide to the butterflies of Europe that I’ll probably use about twice a year at most. Perhaps it’s because I just ordered that book (which hasn’t arrived yet) that I slightly balked at buying another field guide to butterflies. They’re not my main interest, after all. Still, by any reasonable standards a tenner isn’t a lot of money.

I haven’t actually used it in the field yet, but here are my immediate impressions. On the positive side, the content is excellent: high quality and comprehensive. My slight reservations are to do with the app’s usability as a field guide. I’ll give you a quick tour of the way the guide works and then explain what I mean.

It opens with a list of butterflies, which can be sorted either taxonomically or alphabetically:

img_0001

This list doesn’t scroll quite as smoothly as it might, btw, but that’s a fairly trivial point. When you select a species, you get a screen like this:

img_0002

As well as illustrations of the adult butterflies, it also includes the eggs, caterpillars and cocoons, plus a selection of photographs, a distribution map, a calendar, and a text description for each species. Te arrows in the top-right corner move between species.

The illustrations are by the excellent Richard Lewington.

img_0004

You can flick from one picture to the next within a species, and zoom in on the illustrations or turn the phone to see them larger in landscape mode. In fact it behaves pretty much like the iPhone’s built-in Photos app, which is effectively what it is.

There are illustrations of male, female, upperside and underside, and sometimes variant forms. And here’s an example of a map:

img_0003

The text is also very thorough:

img_00021

As you can see, the content is really impressive: detailed, comprehensive and of high quality. I don’t have the expertise to judge the accuracy of the details, but it all appears to be very professional. Incidentally, I suppose one advantage of an electronic guide is that if people do spot any inaccuracies, they can be corrected via a software update.

But as I say, I don’t know how easy it would be to use as a field guide. If you were on a walk in the country, saw a butterfly and wanted to know what it was, it wouldn’t be that easy to quickly see what the possibilities are. There’s no easy way to compare the illustrations or information between two different species. Certainly you don’t have several illustrations on the same page in the way you would with a paper field guide, but also there’s no easy way to flick quickly back and forward between two or three species. You can’t skim through the information.

I don’t want to sound too negative: part of the problem is the fundamental limitations of the technology, particularly the size and resolution of the screen. And it’s still early days; I’m quite sure that over time developers will work out ways to make these apps more usable. The kind of key which is sometimes used for wildflowers, which uses a series of questions to help find the right species (is the stem smooth or hairy? are the leaves in pairs along the stem or alternating?) seems well suited to the iPhone, for example.

For this particular app I would ideally try to make the main screen for each species more informative at a glance: perhaps with a kind of summary screen showing two or three pictures of the adult butterflies — male and female or whatever is appropriate for that species — and a very rough distribution map. It would be a bit crowded and the pictures wouldn’t be very big, but it would be just enough information so you could quickly see whether you wanted to look in more detail or move on to another species. Then you could swipe the screen left to reveal the species screen as it is now, and drill down to find all the juicy details.

So the main species screen could look something like this (apologies for the clumsy mock-up):

splash2

And then you swipe across, or hit a button or whatever, to get the species screen as it is now, with all the more detailed information.

Anyway, I don’t mean to be too picky; as much as anything I’m just thinking out loud because I find it interesting. And despite the pickyness, I’m really pleased to see a British field guide in the App Store, and pleased that it has such high quality content. Hopefully it’s the first of many.

Another iPhone application I would pay good money for

Time Out on my phone.

I could only find one iPhone app with UK cinema listings and it didn’t have my local cinema listed, so that’s one thing I’d pay for on its own. But if I could get something with the whole lot — cinema listings, exhibitions, restaurant reviews, TV schedules, comedy, poetry readings — all optimised for use on my phone and location-aware, well, that would be brilliant. Actually, it’s a good rule of thumb: any way I can replace something I might otherwise carry around with me, that’s a winner. That’s why buying the A-Z was a no-brainer, why I want field guides on my phone, and why I want Time Out. Anything under £10 would be a bargain, and I’d probably pay more. I might even be willing to pay an annual subscription.

iPhone field guides, please

I was interested to read Chris Clarke enthusing about iBird Explorer Plus, a field guide to North American birds for the iPhone, because it’s just about the first application I thought of when the phone was released. There doesn’t seem to be an equivalent piece of software for Europe yet, but hopefully it will come.

It also seems relevant to a discussion that has been rumbling on in various places (e.g. this post which I found via Daring Fireball) about pricing for iPhone applications, about whether all the crappy applications for a couple of dollars will crowd out better software and prevent people from paying a more serious price for them.

Well, I paid £17 (about $30 at the time) for this book, probably the best field guide ever written, and I would cheerfully pay the same again just to have exactly the same information available on my phone. I paid £35 for a 4 CD set of the bird songs and calls of Europe. And I bought an iPod Nano just so I could have those bird songs with me when I was birdwatching. For a really well-designed application for the iPhone that combined the information and illustrations from the Collins guide with added audio and photographic reference, I would pay £40 without thinking and would probably go higher.

And that’s despite the fact that I don’t think the iPhone is ever going to make an ideal field guide: the advantages like portability and multimedia will never quite compensate for the small screen size. For proper birding I would want the book as well. But to have that information with me at all times, I’d certainly pay good money. And why stop there? I also own field guides to British wild flowers, butterflies, moths, trees, fungi, and insects. Since I don’t want to break my back, I don’t normally carry them around with me; I would love to have iPhone versions of them.

The thing is, I have difficulty thinking of pure functionality that you could add to the iPhone that I would spend a lot of money on. I’m not saying it doesn’t exist, just that I don’t have the imgination to think what it is. But I would certainly pay for content.

Another example: amazing though Google Maps is, for walking in the UK, it’s no substitute for the appropriate Ordnance Survey map with all the footpaths and pubs marked on it. And while it would be nice to think that OS could sell digital versions of their maps slightly cheaper than the paper ones, I would pay the full price, grumbling a little, if I could. I paid £6 for a buggy version of the London Mini A-Z, so I guess I couldn’t complain about paying the same for an OS map. For a package that gave me coverage for the whole of, say, Sussex, Kent and Surrey at multiple resolutions, £50 or £60 wouldn’t seem like an unreasonable price.

for reverence of his Sabot day

I downloaded a reader app for my iPhone and, browsing around Project Gutenberg for something public domain to read, I came across A Chronicle of London from 1089 to 1483, as transcribed and published by a couple of C19th antiquarians. There’s an awful lot of bureaucratic stuff about the mayor and sheriffs of London, and who’s in the Tower at the moment, which doesn’t have much interest for the casual reader. But there are enough little anecdotes like this one to hold the interest:

And in this yere, that is to seye the yere of our lord a mlcclviij, there fel a Jewe into a pryve at Teukesbury upon a Satirday, the whiche wolde nought suffre hym selfe to be drawe out of the preve that day for reverence of his Sabot day: and Sr. Richard of Clare, thanne erle of Gloucestre, herynge therof, wolde nought sufrre hym to be drawe out on the morwe after, that is to say the Soneday, for reverence of his holy day; and so the Jewe deyde in the preve.

This is in 1258, shortly after the death of Hugh of Lincoln and 30 years before England became the first country in Europe to expel its Jewish population.

The iPhone isn’t ideal for reading, but if you choose a fairly low-contrast combination of colours for the page and the text, it’s entirely manageable. I haven’t read anything very long yet, but if I was going on holiday I think I could do worse than take a dozen assorted books on my phone: a few Victorian novels, some poetry, who knows. Hell, if you’re willing to actually pay for the books, you can get ones which are still in copyright. The Chronicle actually works quite well because I can just dip into it from time to time and read a few pages without worrying about losing the thread.

Links

  • 'the stream addresses of BBC National Radio stations, so that you can listen to the BBC on the move using an iPhone or iPod Touch.' Not sure this works for people outside the UK, but I'm really excited to find it. Now I can listen to the cricket on my phone… genius!
    (del.icio.us tags: iPhone radio BBC )
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