Now that iOS 9 has been out for a month, let’s compare the updated Apple Maps with two of the most popular iOS mapping apps here in Japan: Google Maps and Yahoo Japan Maps. We’ll compare four categories: data quality for accuracy and detail, cartography for ‘at a glance’ comprehension and clarity, local search and directions for quality and reliability, and finally, overall backend system performance. We’ll be reviewing the Japanese language versions, so we’ll use the traditional Japanese three rank rating:
O (maru) = good
∆ (sankaku) = fair
X (peke) = NG
Disclaimer: As of October 25, 2015 Apple Maps has yet to implement traffic data or transit data for Japan. These features will not be reviewed.
Apple Maps in Japan suffered similar 2012 launch embarrassments found in other countries. Who could forget the underwater subway stations in Yotsuya Tokyo or the infamous Gundam Pachinko JR train station. Map experts at the time concluded that Apple had jumbled two different OpenStreet data sets and inexplicably used out of date information.
Apple currently uses two map data providers for Japan: Increment P and OpenStreet. Neither of these are top tier map data suppliers. In Japan there is only one map data supplier that matters: Zenrin. They are the oldest, largest Japanese digital map data supplier with a huge army of “ground truth experts” that nobody else can match. Google and Yahoo Japan use Zenrin data and it makes a huge difference. Let’s visit and few places and compare results.
First up is Gotanda JR Station in Tokyo.
The ‘at a glance’ default view tells us a lot about the choices each map team made: what’s important here, what do we need to communicate to the user, how do we show it.
Apple Maps: Apple doesn’t have any idea what is important here or what to tell the user: the default view is zoomed out too far, the low background contrast destroys important road detail, low contrast, needlessly verbose, colored text labeled icons are hard to read and clutter up the view. All of these poor design choices force the user to zoom in to find anything.
Google Maps: The high background contrast, the clearly marked roads are very nice. If anything Google nudges too far into ‘not enough detail’ zone of zen like nothingness: a gray on gray train station with the name of the train line but not the station. Goggle loses important information ranking visual cues by locking text labels and icons to the same size. Google choses pretty over important. Rating: ∆
Yahoo Japan Maps: lots of things to like here: different sized text labels tell you that TRAIN STATION is more important that the convenience store, major roads are color ranked and grab your attention, train tracks stand out in bold relief and there is no mistaking the big red train station with the big text labels that clearly show Gotanda station is two stations in one. Rating: O
Next, let’s zoom in for street detail
Apple Maps: Notice how much is missing: no building numbers or names anywhere. Apple’s second rate data suppliers really come up short against the Zenrin provided data detail in Google Maps and Yahoo Japan Maps. In short, unnavigable. Rating: X
Google Maps: Again the high background contrast is great. Some building names are there, but why do the text labels have to fit on the roof at such an odd angles? AND why are building numbers, crucial Japanese navigation information, completely missing? Surprisingly incomplete. Rating: ∆
Yahoo Japan Maps: All the necessary information for navigating Japanese addresses is here, the building numbers are present, the regular left to right text labels are easier to read. This is the best map for finding a Japanese address. Rating: O
Ok, let’s go swimming at the local pool.
Apple Maps: Oops, where did the pools go? The locker room is there but nothing else including the Suwa Shinto Shrine behind…wait a minute, the pool and shrine are separate and….oh forget it. Rating: X
Google Maps: The pools are here and we get the name of the local river as a bonus. Rating: O
Yahoo Japan Maps: Pools but no river name. The color coding for the national highway below and the pink building color designating a public/commercial structure are nice touches and help differentiate the locker rooms from the pump station next door. Rating: O
Is the Apple Maps data fiasco really the fault of bad map data from Increment P and OpenSteet? Here’s a comparison.
The Increment P map on the left shows the swimming pools thought the cartographers forgot to finish drawing the river on the top. The OpenStreet Maps on the right shows…nothing. For whatever reason Apple Maps chose the incomplete data set.
Next up, road trip to a hot spring inn.
Apple Maps: Apple’s weak Japanese map data suppliers only show primary roads, secondary road and building information are completely missing. The lesson here is do not go driving outside of Japanese metropolitan areas with Apple Maps as your guide, you will get lost. You’ll probably get lost in metropolitan areas as well.
Google Maps: All the necessary secondary road and building information is here to get you to your destination. Rating: O
Yahoo Japan Maps: All the necessary information is here plus some nice helpful touches: the public/commercial buildings (inns, hotels, etc) are marked pink, the national roadway is yellow, the mountain contours are little clearer. Rating: O
Let’s go back to the Gotanda station area and zoom in on a few details.
Apple Maps: From the cartography you would never recognize Apple’s history of design excellence. There are shocking typographic design mistakes: never, ever use color text for small sized Chinese characters/Japanese kanji. Kanji are much more complex than roman letters in the same given space and require maximum contrast especially, as they get smaller.
Long and needlessly verbose Japanese text labels are also a big problem with Apple Maps and they are everywhere. Notice how many characters make up the Abe Hospital text label: 13 characters. Google and Yahoo Japan both use just 4 characters. Why is there such a difference? It seems Apple is pulling text label Japanese place name data from a different source that uses full legal names. Nobody is checking to see what is really used on street signs or other maps.
Last but not least check out the gray icon and text in the red rectangle. These ‘gray ghosts icons’ are the poster child for everything wrong with Apple Maps cartography in Japanese: poor contrast, almost impossible to read and needlessly verbose gray text labeled icons marking such vastly different items such as parking meters, public toilets, bath houses, pachinko parlors and Christian churches. No design sense what so ever. Rating: X
Google Maps: Google’s cartography is much cleaner but they also make the mistake of using colored Japanese text labels, though they attempt to tone it down. Why not just go for black text and leave the colored icon? Also the round icons are too similar and difficult to distinguish. Rating: ∆
Yahoo Japan Maps: A Japanese outfit, the former ALPS Mapping K.K, knows how to do cartography the right way: Japanese text labels are simple black for maximum contrast and readability. Colored text is only used, sparingly, for large size important place names such as train stations. The easy to distinguish differently shaped icons help raise the bar over Google’s design. Rating: O
Let’s do a simple search for the nearest convenience store.
Apple Maps: Just like map data, local search is only as good as the data quality. Up until iOS 8 Apple used a mix of Yahoo Japan search results and the occasional Yelp. Neither of these worked. Yelp does not posses a Japanese operation worthy of use, Yahoo Japan uses Google’s search engine and never integrated well with Apple Maps local search.
For iOS 9 Apple signed Tabelog a longtime Japanese supplier of restaurant/cafe/bar data, and they are using Trip Advisor for travel review data. Neither of these suppliers are without problems. Tabelog, a subsidiary of Yahoo Japan, has been accused of hosting fake reviews from time to time. Trip Advisor had steadily built a Japanese presence but is far away from being a top tier supplier with the best quality data.
As you can see from the local search result above, Japanese search appears to be transitioning to iOS 9 ‘Nearby’ layout but the data quality isn’t in place yet. The nearest convenience stores are missing.
Google Maps: Goggle finds and lists the nearest convenience stores but WHY is the local auto repair shop listed? The only thing to buy there is a repair job. Surprisingly sloppy. Rating: ∆
Yahoo Japan Maps: Yahoo Japan’s layout is a little more manual, I prefer the Google and Apple UI, but the search result quality is the best. Rating: O
Apple Maps: The backend system is fast, the GPS is accurate. Poor data quality is the only thing holding Apple back: route search misses the fastest shortcut offered by Google and Yahoo Japan.
Google Maps: Google really shines, the UI is great and clearly offers the best route choice, alternate routes and time. Rating: O
Yahoo Japan Maps: The faster route is the default choice with no alternatives. Not quite as nice as Google but it will do. Rating: O
In test after test Apple and Google are neck and neck with search times, GPS accuracy, smooth scrolling, all the things you would expect from top two technology companies of our time. Yahoo Japan Maps suffers somewhat from blocky scrolling with Japanese locations. And as you might expect, outside of Japan, Yahoo Japan maps is worthless.
The average data volume used by each mapping app was measured recently by SIMDOJO, the results are interesting: Apple Maps used the least data on average at 2.5MB per location search, Google Maps used 3.9MB on average, Yahoo Japan Maps used the most at 7.0MB on average. Keep this in mind if you are using maps on a limited data plan.
In the 3 years since its September 2012 debut, Apple Maps in Japan has made no progress where it really matters: map data remains incomplete and inaccurate, the cartography hinders instead of helps, local search remains a wild goose chase.
Apple has hired ex Yahoo Japan Map engineers such as Taro Kawai so there is hope things can improve, but it is a daunting task and will remain an impossible one until Apple signs up the best Japanese data suppliers.
Of all three apps Yahoo Japan has the best and most consistent data quality and detail for both maps and local search. The backend system performance lags behind Google and Apple and eats more data, but you will find what you are looking for if Google lets you down. It’s a worthy addition to your map app arsenal but only for use in Japan.
Google remains the overall gold standard with rock solid Zenrin supplied map data, excellent transit integration, Google Street View, and English language support. Google Maps is not perfect however, local search results sometimes spotty and map details stop short of giving you building numbers. The effects of the ill-fated Goggle Map Maker are still around too, malicious edits are still not fixed months after they appeared and they may never be completely vetted and repaired. For most users, Google remains the easiest and best choice for navigating in Japan.
John Gruber of Daring Fireball recently wrote,
I know that Apple Maps still has terrible data for certain parts of the world. But I’ve been saying for a while now that for a lot of us, it’s gotten pretty good.
If Apple fixes their map data problem in Japan, I look forward to revisiting and reviewing Apple Maps again.