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.