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I was pretty scathing about Apples new maps for a variety of reasons: business listings which were mispelled, years out of date or hundreds of metres from where they should be, building outlines that aren’t properly aligned with the street layout, and a whole lot of stuff which is just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

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.

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