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I was pretty scathing about Apples new maps for a variety of reasons: business listings which were mispelled, years out of date or hundreds of metres from where they should be, building outlines that aren’t properly aligned with the street layout, and a whole lot of stuff which is just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

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Other

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.

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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 na[email protected] 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.

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Culture

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.

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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?

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Me

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.