iOS 10 Maps: Nearby Search UI Improvements

The iOS 10 beta on iPad adds some nice UI refinements in Nearby search.

IMG_0137IMG_0138The first two steps of a Nearby search are exactly the same in iOS 9. iOS 10 improvements start in the next step of the search, cafe in this case.
IMG_0139Instead of a mass of red drop pins the new iOS 10 Nearby UI offers search result icons with the cafe name in bold. If there is more than one cafe in the immediate area, Nearby displays a number. Tapping on the number icon filters the result list. The UI is dynamic and changes as you zoom in. The experience is cleaner and easier to use than Nearby search in iOS 9.

Another very nice addition, similar to Google’s approach, is the “Search Here” button that dynamically appears when you navigate to a adjacent area. Tap on it and Nearby searches again in the new area. IMG_0141


Japanese Cartography Comparison

Justin O’Beirne has published part two of his epic essay comparing Google Maps and Apple Maps: “Content — The  Map as a Whole”. It’s a great read and deep analysis.

I think there is a much simpler and subjective comparison test: is the map easy to read, does it convey the most important information at a glance? What is the map ‘Glance Quotient’?

Glance Quotient
Here are three comparison iPhone 6S screen shot views of Shinjuku Station (left to right) in Apple Maps, Google Maps and Yahoo Japan Maps (Best viewed on a desktop browser, WordPress resizes the 50% image to 25% on mobile browsers).

three shinjukus 10 D
Approximately 10%
There isn’t any meaningful detail in Apple or Google maps at 10%, but you can make out the red Shinjuku station outline and yellow/orange major roads in Yahoo Japan Maps.

three shinjukus 25 C
Approximately 25%
The basic information in Yahoo Japan Maps is surprisingly clear even at 25%, Google Maps much less so, Apple Maps not at all.

three shinjukus 100
Approximately 50%
At 50% the large bold text station labels in Yahoo Japan Maps are coming into focus. Google Maps Japanese text is clean but still too small for my eyes to make out. Google’s use of the similar colors for the map background and Shinjuku station is just wrong. Apple Maps does offer a little more contrast between the background and Shinjuku station, but the low contrast colored text is illegible, and the technicolor measles icon overlay Apple uses is pure distraction that offers zero information.

I have always said that Yahoo Japan Maps has the best cartography of the big three Japanese digital maps. To be fair though Yahoo Japan Maps does have it easy, they only have to focus map resources on Japan and use Bing maps for the rest of the world. Apple and Google have to map the whole world.

(The full size screen shots used in the above comparisons are included below)

Shinjuku Apple
Apple Maps view of Shinjuku Station 750 x 1333 pixels.

Shinjuku Google
Google Maps view of Shinjuku Station 750 x 1333 pixels

Shinjuku Yahoo Japan
Yahoo Japan Maps view of Shinjuku Station 750 x 1333 pixels

iOS 10 Maps and the Japanese Label Problem 

That sinking feeling. Here it is mid July already, two, maybe three months until the release of iOS 10. That’s very little time to fix things, if it can be done at all. It reminds me of the iOS 6 beta cycle. I assumed all the Japanese map problems in the WWDC beta would be fixed by the final release. They never were and the rest is history.

I have covered the Apple Maps Japanese label problem in recent posts, here and here. In iOS 9 it isn’t highly visible as the user has to drill down and open the info card before they can see the label. In iOS 10 on a iPad, the info card immediately pops up when a place icon is selected. This is a problem for Japanese public transit service, due to arrive with iOS 10: Apple Maps often mislabels Japanese train stations. Let’s take a look at Shinjuku Station.

Shinjuku Station
iOS 10 beta 2 map view of Shinjuku Station with the info card.
The Japanese label listed for Shinjuku Station above, underlined in red,  is “Romen-Densha-Eki” which literally translates as “surface electric train station”. The actual meaning is “Street Car Station”. Shinjuku Station has street cars? Of course not. This error is probably due to machine translation that has not been checked by a human being who understands Japanese.

Shinagawa Station
iOS 10 map view of Shinagawa Station with info card.
Shinagawa Station is labeled as a “Tetsudo-Eki”, which does translate as “railroad station”. However this usage is old fashioned and nowadays refers to non-electric diesel trains. This might be appropriate for a non-electrified areas like Hokkaido, but not the best choice for a major Tokyo station where all the trains are electrified.

Yukiga Otsuka Station
iOS 10 beta 2 map view of Yuki-ga-otsuka Station info card
The label for Yuki-ga-otsuka station reads as “Unso”. This literally means “shipping” or “transport”, as in ship cargo or truck cargo. This is a passenger train station so it looks like another machine translation that needs fixing by a human being.

These kind of label errors will not instill user confidence in Japanese public transit if they are not corrected before the rollout this fall. To be fair though, Google Maps doesn’t always get Japanese station lables exactly right every time either.

Apple Maps – Process and Sustainability 

Apple Insider editor Daniel Eran Dilger watched the same WWDC 16 Public Transit in Apple Maps session video I did but came to a completely different conclusion,  posted as “Why Apple’s Transit Maps are rolling out so slowly“.

After comparing Dilger’s take with my own, something didn’t feel right. Digger’s piece focuses on the slow rollout of public transit in Apple Maps and what Apple is doing about it. My take took the cultural curation PR-speak of the WWDC presentation and attempted to show that it was a joke in light of the problems with Apple Maps in Japan, and that Apple’s basic process is flawed.

WWDC Process

After reflecting on it I think both takes are limited observations that miss a much larger and deeper set of issues resulting from the decisions Apple made when launching the maps effort in 2010~2011. A lot has been written about Apple Maps since the 2012 debut but there’s not much publicly available hard analysis by industry experts. The best I ever found is Dr. Mike Dobson’s Exploring Local blog.

Dobson’s September 2012 post “Google Maps announces a 400 year advantage over Apple Maps” is as relevant today as when it was written. The key mistakes Apple made in the initial maps ramp-up were:

  • “C-grade” suppliers.
  • Failure to recognize the difficulty integrating information from disparate data sources.
  • General incompetence in rationalizing data sources.

In summary Dobson said:

If you go back over this blog and follow my recounting of the history of Google’s attempts at developing a quality mapping service, you will notice that they initially tried to automate the entire process and failed miserably, as has Apple. Google learned that you cannot take the human out of the equation…The issue plaguing Apple Maps is not mathematics or algorithms, it is data quality.

It’s clear from Dilger’s post and comments by tech bloggers such as John Gruber of Daring Fireball, that Apple Maps services have improved for users in the US and other countries. Apple Maps in Japan is still a 2012 era product however, displaying all the problems laid out by Dobson. Data quality requires human beings, I suspect there are not many Japanese working on Japanese maps. For that reason I predict the Japanese public transit service in iOS 10 will suffer from the same problems, but that is not the whole story.

In a post from July 2015 “Can Anyone Stay on Top of the Online Mapping Hill?”, Dobson lays out a critical  issue I never considered, one with serious long term consequences.

I have previously noted in this blog my interest in how long Google might be able to sustain its “spend” on mapping software. I think we now have an answer. It is my impression that the heady days of map development at Google are over and that its map products will be maintained at or near their existing levels, but with little innovation, other than in regards to autonomous navigation systems, as we proceed into the future. Google, unfortunately, is approaching middle-age and is developing the concerns that accompany fiscal responsibility…

Although it is early in game for Apple, I doubt they will fare much better. In its favor, the company has been more circumspect about spending. It appears to have out-thought Google’s mapping innovations and found of way to reach near-parity without spending as much as Google. However, in the long run, Apple’s market is limited to its own customer base, and quality mapping will be too expensive to support without some fundamental change in Apple’s business model. I suspect that eventually Apple will find that it, too, cannot afford to support its mapping programs at the desired level of accuracy and functionality.

As the market matures for both Apple and Google, the sustainability of digital map development costs will certainly come under pressure, and with it quality and functionality could suffer.

iOS 10: Reading the Apple Maps Cartography Tea Leaves

スクリーンショット 2016-07-02 11.28.58
The Japanese public transit image on Apple’s iOS 10 preview page.
The iOS 10 preview image for Apple Maps Japanese public transit is fascinating. It’s a coming attraction movie trailer. Movie trailers, as you know, always use background music that has nothing to do with the actual movie and have scenes that are never in the final film. With that in mind, let’s look at some details.

The image shows the Shinjuku station footprint in transit view with surrounding above ground station structures, department stores in this case, in light semi-transparent purple, and the basement structures in pink. The JR and subway lines are marked in different colors as you might expect but the high contrast solid dark purple platform footprints are something entirely new and a welcome change. The current iOS 9 transit view shows platform footprints in typical, cartoony Apple Maps cartography style: light pink on light pink outlines on light beige background that is super low contrast and very hard to see.

Transit Lines
Compared with the current iOS 9 cartography, the iOS 10 style transit lines look thinner and a little harder to see. Bold is always better and Apple Maps would be better off not following the Google Maps transit style in which train and subway lines are too thin to stand out against the background.

The JR train line has a new style that is instantly recognizable. It actually looks like a real, black and white dashed train line seen in maps of yore, in Google, or in any other digital map out there. FINALLY.

Local Signage – Circles Out, Squares In?
The preview image shows a lot more local signage. The old style blue generic train station icon is replaced by the official JR logo, but something doesn’t look right. The current iOS 10 beta maps cartography goes all in with round icons, and Apple has been busy over the past few month swapping out Japanese square icon signage with round versions. This looks like a movie trailer scene that will be missing in the final release.

iOS 10 icons
iOS 10 map cartography is all about round signage.
Other Stuff
There are lots of important details left to the imagination that will make or break the Japanese public transit service. What will passageways, exits, board instructions and directions all look like? Shinjuku and Tokyo are the largest and most complex stations in the world. It’s such a huge challenge that even Google Maps doesn’t get it right. It will be fascinating to see what Japanese public transit experience Apple delivers in iOS 10 Maps.

iOS 10 beta 2 adds Public Transit Preferences

iOS 1o Beta 2 has new public transit preferences in Maps Settings. Users can now set route suggestion preferences by foot, car or public transit. Public Transit also has it’s own setting to fine tune route suggestions. Users can use all or limit suggestions to certain types of transit such as subway, train, bus, ferry, etc. The Car and Navigation preference also includes toggles for filtering expressways and toll roads.

The beta 2 Maps app itself does not as yet display Japanese transit Information.

Update: I may have missed these in beta 1, oops. At any rate Japanese language localization is finalized in beta 2.

beta 2-2
Maps settings has a new public transit preference.
beta 2-1
The new public transit preference lets users filter public route suggestions to certain types of transit: subway, train, bus, etc.

Apple Maps – Cultural Curation or Cultural Imperialism?

Curated. I hate the word. It was hijacked by PR hacks then foisted on readers by tech bloggers who should know better, to delude people into thinking that database information is tasty and posh, like fine wine and cheese.

It’s a stupid way of saying, ‘this raw information was read by a human being who might actually comprehend it enough to edit and, perhaps, even make it useful.’ The basic job of a database has, and always will be to provide useful, accurate information. In this day and age is that too much to ask? This curation nonsense sounds like a con job.

When Apple talked about “Curated Cultural Details” that promised to “respect culture by reflecting it back at our customers” at the WWDC 16 maps session, what were they really saying?

WWDC Process

Process, Rinse, Repeat
The process Apple described for creating their public transit map service consists of four steps (blocks) built on top of one another:

1) Get data from the provider (gather)
2) Conduct original research and on-site surveys (vet)
3) Curate the data for the local culture (edit)
4) Deliver curated data through the UI

This stuff is so basic it can be applied to any part of the maps operation, or any database operation for that matter. It’s so basic what can go wrong? Many things, but since each step depends on the success of the previous one, the potential problems are obvious and easy to avoid with four simple questions:

1) How reliable is your source data?
2) How good is your vetting system at finding and correcting mistakes?
3) How knowledgeable is your editing team with local culture and conventions?
4) How good is your UI?

Let’s look at the results of the process and examine some Tokyo places in Apple Maps, then compare them with Google Maps. Religion is a good place to start, the only place to start actually, and finish: if local religious culture and conventions are not being respected, the entire local culture is not being respected.

Japanese culture has a long, deep passion for recording and classifying things in detail. The voluminous and detailed business records of the Edo era stand as a testament. They are works of art not only to the eye, but also the brain. The Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology has very specific legal religious classifications, the main ones are:

1) Buddhist Temples 「寺院」
2) Shinto Shrines 「神社」
3) Christian Churches 「キリスト教会」or 「教会」
4) Religious Organizations 「宗教団体」

The first three apply to traditional religions that have priests. The religion organization category is broad and covers more modern, i.e. lay religious organizations that either do not have priests, or have self appointed ones. Let’s look at Ikegami Honmonji, a large Buddhist temple compound in south Tokyo and see how Apple Maps and Google Maps classify it.

ikegami 1 v2
Apple and Google views of Ikegami Honmoji temple.
ikegami sidexside 2
(L~R) Both Apple and Google label Ikegami Honmonji temple as a temple. Note that the Apple source data is from Yelp.

ikegami sidexside 3
Apple Maps (left) lists another temple, Nishi-no-in, as a religious organization. Apple lists most Buddhist temples this way.
Google is consistent and labels all temples in the compound as a ‘Buddhist Temple’ but Apple Maps displays a mix of ‘Buddhist Temple’ and ‘Religious Organization’ depending on the source data. The oldest data set uses the latter while recently added data from Yelp and Trip Advisor use the former. Three problems: 1) Apple isn’t getting reliable high quality source data,  2) they are not vetting it because: 3) nobody knows what the problem is. No cultural curated data here.

Apple makes a worse mixup with Shinto Shrines. Google always gets the category right. The scattershot Yelp and Trip Advisor data sources also label Shinto Shrines correctly as Shinto  Shrines (Jinja)  but Apple labels the majority as ‘landmark’. Who in their right mind would call a Shinto Shrine a landmark instead of a Shinto Shrine?  It’s incomprehensible but again illustrates the broken Apple Maps process.

shinto zoom
Apple Maps labels Shinto Shrines as ‘Landmark’.
What about Christian Churches? Apple categorizes and labels them correctly. That is the point: Apple Maps always labels Christian churches correctly but usually labels Buddhist temples and Shinto Shrines incorrectly.

church 3
Apple correctly labels churches as churches.
Curation, Cultural Imperialism, or Incompetence?
The worst problem is what I call the ‘Apple Maps religious institution display ranking problem’. Map details are ranked according to size and importance relative to the surrounding area. Large and important points such as Shinjuku station or expressways are the first to display as you zoom in. The lower the rank, the further you have to zoom in before the digital map displays it. History is a ranking factor too. A shrine or temple that has a few hundred years behind it is always an important local feature and key navigation point.

Apple has a passion for Japanese Christian Churches. No matter how small or how new, Apple Maps displays them in a very high ‘zoom rank’ reserved for traffic lights and basic road information, and completely ignores far larger temples and shrines in the immediate surrounding area.

(The following videos compare Apple Maps and Google Maps zooming behavior with churches, shrines and temples. In the first video Apple Maps immediately dislays churches even though they are very small. Much larger local shrines and temples are ‘zoom ranked’ much lower. Google Maps behaves normally and zoom ranks map points according to their actual size.)

This display problem is far worse than the category problem because it tells Japanese customers that Apple thinks Christian Churches are more important than Buddhist temples and Shinto Shrines regardless of size or area importance. It smacks of good old western style cultural imperialism. The fact that these problems have been with Apple Maps since the 2012 launch without being fixed just makes it worse. The message Apple is sending to Japanese customers is: we don’t care enough about your culture to fix anything.

At WWDC Apple concluded their maps presentation saying the entire data gathering process is “all wrapped in the Apple Maps UI to delight our customers.” The reality explained above is this: Apple’s absolute inability to gather accurate map information or to vet anything, combined with astounding cultural ignorance, is all stuffed down a data pipeline, a virtual alimentary canal of incompetence. When Apple Maps UI spews this shit on Japanese customers, I don’t think they are delighted.

As I said in my review of iOS 9 Apple Maps in Japan:

In the 3 years since its debut, Apple Maps in Japan has made no progress where it really matters: map data remains incomplete and inaccurate…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.

And again with the launch of Nearby search:

Apple Maps is almost four years old. In Japan, even with the addition of Nearby, it remains the broken product released in September 2012.

After all this time Apple still has no interest in obtaining high quality Japanese source data, and no interest in vetting or correcting it. Perhaps they don’t know how, but I doubt that.

The Apple Maps process is so broken the only conclusion is this: the Japanese public transit service coming with iOS 10 is doomed to the same fate of Apple’s efforts in Japan so far. It will be one incomplete, inaccurate, incoherent and uncultured mess.

The stakes are much bigger this time however, because nothing pisses people off more when bad information causes them to miss a train connection, or arrive at a wrong destination.

The Japanese launch of iOS 10 might be a memorable one, just not in a good way.