Reviewing Apple Maps is impossible because it’s not the same product everywhere. The iOS 15 Apple Maps users get in California is completely different from the Apple Maps users get in Japan. The vast collection of services under the Maps umbrella is such that a comprehensive overview would require separate reviews of each category and country: (1) Basic Directions: driving, transit, bike, walking, (2) Search: pre-canned Nearby, Point of Interest, etc., (3) Two different versions of Look Around, (4) Guides, (5) Last but not least: cartography design and map data quality.
The reason for this of course is that much of Apple Maps is outsourced, very little is collected in-house and created by Apple. Apple uses many different local data suppliers of varying quality to deliver most map services for each country. Regions outside of major metropolitan areas only have a small sub-set of those services.
Nobody has mapped the vast Apple Maps effort better than Justin O’Beirne but even he limits his analysis to cartography comparisons and listing feature availability rollouts. His useful availability table illustrates the dilemma, as you can see Maps feature availability is all over the place.
For this iOS 15 Apple Maps non-review, I’ll limit observations to a few features in Japan, or lack thereof. Before diving in it is important to be acquainted with the basic longstanding quality problems that Apple Maps Japan has suffered from:
- Poor quality map data from supplier Increment P (now called GeoTechnology), especially weak in rural areas. Apple could easily and greatly improve their map product by switching to outstanding Zenrin data, but they have not taken the opportunity.
- Extremely uneven quality from various Point of Interest (POI) data suppliers
- Poor vetting and coordination of 3rd party supplied data on the Apple Maps system side (duplicates, missing localization, etc.) with no viable way to report many kinds of errors.
- Poor Japanese typography, specifically unfamiliarity with or unwillingness to accommodate and optimize non-roman character sets like Kanji that have special rules and needs for legible display.
- No real-time transit schedule data integration, weak rural area transit direction support
I created a similar feature availability chart to O’Beirne’s one, focusing only on Japan and clearly separating out Apple in-house and 3rd party supplied data. Transit directions are the only nationwide available feature beyond fundamental drive and walking directions.
iOS 15 New Cartography
All countries, more or less, get the Apple Maps ‘new look’ cartography (but not the ‘New Maps’ Apple collected data) which everybody seems to either love or hate neatly summed up in the above Twitter timeline screenshot. O’Beirne never delivered his long promised, repeatedly postponed iOS 15 cartography review opus. This limited overview will have to do.
Let’s start with the basic new UI elements. iOS 15 Apple Maps has 4 views compared with the 3 views of previous iOS versions: Explore, Driving, Transit, Satellite. Explore is new and serves as the default view for exploring details and Points of Interest (POI) in full glory, or drowning in gory details…depending on your point of view.
Explore attempts to limit POI clutter with a new map design element: the ‘micro POI’. Micro POI are textless small dots using the same POI color scheme that tells the users there is more information available by zooming in. It’s a nice idea that Google Maps cribbed and implemented in better (bigger, higher contrast, easy to see) fashion that Apple.
The micro POI failure in Apple Maps is due to another new map element: highlighted commercial areas. Google Maps has highlighted commercial areas with a slightly different background color for some time. Apple Maps now highlights these areas with a pale orange background color that separates it from the standard grey background of non-commercial areas. Unfortunately the commercial POI color is also orange…so you end up with orange text on orange background. Micro POI look better in Dark Mode because the different background color adds most contrast. Hopefully Apple will continue to improve their new design to match the clarity and high contrast readability of Google and Yahoo Japan.
Japanese typography problems remain
The new cartography is a mixed bag on the colored Kanji typography front. Dark mode has improved dramatically but regular light mode still suffers from low contrast where the text color is almost the same as the background color. And Apple Maps still does ‘fukuro moji‘ wrong, there are too many times where there should be a black outline instead of white to make the text label readable. This issue is the perfect opportunity for AI that intelligently delivers the best display typography whatever the background is. Google Maps is remains miles ahead here and also respects user dynamic text size and bold text settings which Apple Maps completely ignores.
En-route disembark notifications are finally here but in my extensive testing, I found the design strangely inconsistent and disembark notifications unreliable. First of all Transit directions take over the screen like driving directions but only when set in iPhone but not, Apple Watch. Transfer and destination notifications are non standard app only banners that are also work differently on Apple Watch: they only show when Apple Maps is in the background.
The notification mechanism itself is GPS based and doesn’t work well in subways or big stations like Shinjuku that have notoriously bad GPS reception. Most of the time I get ‘next station disembark’ alerts after the train pulls out of Shinjuku. It’s the same story for Ikebukuro, Tokyo, Shibuya, and other major stations.
Transit directions now includes train car exit information, but real time transit and train crowding information is still missing. All of these have been on Google Maps Japan and Yahoo Japan Maps for some time and the UI is much more useful for searching transit route options.
One last time
I’ll close out this post and Apple Maps coverage with some final thoughts on the Japan product. Apple Maps reaches the 10 year mark in 2022, the ‘New Maps’ effort will be 4 years old. Things have improved for some regions but the overall level of fit and polish feels the same because the same old iOS 6 era problems lurk under the new candy coated surface. The more I use iOS 15 Apple Maps, the less I like it.
The basic malaise of Apple Maps in Japan is focus. The product team thinks that throwing questionable new features into the mix, the new cartography design, Look Around, etc., make a better product. They don’t. They don’t because each new feature is not best in class and/or doesn’t address the needs of the region. The result is a highly integrated collection of mediocre mini products and services. It doesn’t add up…the total is less than the sum of the parts.
Look Around for example: Tokyo data is from 2019 and has not been updated since then (as of this writing in October 2021) and it’s a confusing mix where some Tokyo Look Up areas incorporate POI information and some don’t. Tokyo and other major cities change quickly but the image collection effort remains very limited compared to America, Europe and Australia, Look Around isn’t keeping up, expansion is extremely slow. Guides remain an English only option, Indoor maps don’t include stations…and so it goes.
Compare that to the success of the highly focused Apple Pay Japan, a product that changed the Japanese payments landscape. Jennifer Bailey’s team built a very strong foundation and improved it from there. Instead of spreading themselves thin, Apple would do better to put new features on hold and focus on the basic foundation. Because until that happens, Apple Maps Japan, a product that refuses to name the Sea of Japan, is going nowhere.
iOS 15 Apple Maps User Reaction Gallery