The #1 Japanese Transit App

fullsizeoutput_642bIt’s not Apple Maps, it’s not Google Maps or even Yahoo Japan Maps. The #1 Japanese Transit iPhone app is Yahoo Japan’s stand-alone Transit app and Yahoo Japan is going to town with a big fun marketing blitz featuring Doraemon.

After one year of using Apple Maps Japan Transit since the September 2016 debut, I don’t find it very useful. None of the map apps are very useful for public transit. The problem is they all treat public transit like car navigation: here is point a, here is point b, here is a map route. Transit route map overlays might look cool but are not helpful and waste space that could be used for real information. Both Apple Maps and Google Maps force you to dig for more information instead of just showing it.

Yahoo Japan Transit offers you lots of great information that you can either sort for fastest, cheapest, etc., or quickly search for different times (orange left or right). Yahoo Japan has also integrated those stupid two letter train line codes but thankfully only in the initial search result list.

Map apps basically assume I don’t know how to get to my destination. On the other hand stand-alone transit apps like Yahoo Japan Transit assume you that you know how to get to your destination and just want to find the best way of getting there. It simply offers the best transit options in a handy sortable list: transit time, price, number of transfers. You can save routes, put them in a calendar, set time alarms, GPS destination alarms and more.

And to top it off, if you really need to see how to get from the station to the destination, Yahoo Japan Transit offers you a quick pop up map which is all that you ever really need saving you a needless trip to the map app.

Something Went Wrong in Siri’s and Apple Maps Development (U)

John Gruber made a great post today:

Siri, as it stands today, is at best a halfway product. Again, I’m pro-Siri in the voice assistant debate, but even so I think it’s generous to describe it as “halfway”. The whole category is garbage, Siri included. And frankly, it just doesn’t feel like Apple has made as much progress in six years as they should have.

Something went wrong in Siri’s development, and it wasn’t the voice quality.

I don’t think it is entirely coincidence that two of Apple’s most troubled products, Siri and Apple Maps both appeared at the same troubled time: iOS 6 and the departure of Scott Forstall. They are very different products but the lack of progress in Siri and Apple Maps development after six years, is very troubling indeed.

John was very kind and tweeted a reply that Siri (2011) and Apple Maps (2012) don’t compare because Apple Maps has made far more progress in six years than Siri. That may be true for Apple Maps in America. In Japan Apple Maps is stuck in 2012 limbo

I don’t think there is a definitive answer. Yes, Siri has made excellent progress with natural sounding voices. Yes, Apple Maps has evolved into a good product for America. But these are parts, not a whole.

Again and again I think it all comes back to Steve Jobs WWDC 1997: is the total more or less than the sum of the parts? For John the answer might be more. For me, the answer is less which is why I see both Siri and Apple Maps facing the same problem; lack of progress.

Apple Maps Flashes Some Pink

I don’t know why, but all three major Japanese map products use the same color to indicate large underground structures: pink. It’s a perfect slyly perverse color choice for Shinjuku, a place that Japanese photographer Nobuyoshi Araki called ‘the lucky hole of Tokyo.’

Yahoo Japan Map and Google Maps have offered detailed indoor mapping for some time. After vamping with “carefully curated navigation instructions so it’s easy to get around Japan’s extensive underground tunnel networks.” Apple Maps is about to get serious with indoor mapping and flash some real pink in iOS 11 as Tokyo is one of the launch cities for indoor mall maps.

Tokyo malls are underground shopping arcades attached to the large private rail train stations and department store retail empires of Keio, Seibu, Odakyu, Tokyu, etc. JR East only got started with the privatization of JNR in 1987 but has furiously rebuilt Tokyo station underground into a formidable retail area.

Shinjuku is the world’s busiest station and the most complex. The core JR East station is surrounded by multiple onion-like layers of  private line stations and subway lines interlaced with mazes of underground shopping malls. Here is a quick comparison of the big three Japanese map products focused on Keio Mall in the Shinjuku underground west exit side.

Apple has not uploaded any indoor map data for iOS 11 developer beta yet, I suspect it will come late in the beta cycle. Here is the current Apple Map view of Shinjuku west.

Apple Maps view of Shinjuku station with pink underground structure outlines added in iOS 10.1

Close up of Keiko Mall underground (pink) west exit of Shinjuku station (purple). The small round green Family Mart icon is roughly center point of Keio Mall
Here is the same Keio Mall area in Yahoo Japan Map:

Yahoo Japan Map view of Shinjuku west Keio Mall underground. Nice clean detail that is a hallmark of Yahoo Japan cartography. The different connecting station parts are clearly shown with platform stairs and exit signage exactly matching what you find on the ground. Store backgrounds are color keyed without icons and labeled clearly. The square green Family Mart icon is the same store as the round green icon in the previous Apple Map screenshot.

Larger view of Shinjuku station clearly shows how everything connects which Google Maps does not. Again, note that exits are clearly marked in yellow.
Here is Google Maps view of Keio Mall:

Keio mall google
Google and Apple both have a cartography obsession with three C icons that distract and clutter up information. Notice that Google Maps simply places text labels where they fit with no attempt to align anything, also Google does not display any of the surface exits clearly marked in Yahoo Japan Map.
Here is the indoor Apple Maps image from the iOS 11 preview page:ios11-indoor-maps eidt.png

Even with just the sample we can already see that Apple’s indoor maps will look a lot more like Google than Yahoo Japan: lots of ‘triple C’ (custom color keyed) icons though store background colors remain neutral grey with tiny colored dots indicating store type. The sample shows promise but we won’t know until we see it in action as indoor maps are incredibly difficult to do well.

It will be fascinating to see how it all works in Apple’s take of Shinjuku station, the world’s most complex indoor mapping challenge. If Apple Maps can crack it, or even just match Google, Japanese users will certainly see it as another success following the well received launch of Japan transit.

Real Indoor Apple Maps

ios11 indoor mapsCraig Federighi “finally” announced indoor mapping in Apple Maps for iOS 11 during the WWDC keynote. I say finally because this has been in the works for a very long time. I knew that Apple had been working hard mapping Tokyo indoor locations and was perplexed by the faux indoor mapping used in Apple Maps Japan Transit rollout. In my review at the time I wrote:

The big question is where does Apple’s indoor mapping effort go from here. Will they go the Google way of mapping everything above and below ground, or take the Yahoo Japan way of just showing above and below structures directly related to the station? If Apple only wants to show exits and entrances they could vastly improve the current experience by increasing on route exit signage size and providing information cards with real information.

So we finally get:

detailed floorplans
Detailed floor plans
Place cards
directory and search
Directory & Search
browse by floor
Browse by floor

The launch list includes Tokyo and I hope to check out a real indoor Apple Map of Shinjuku station underground malls in the iOS 11 public beta. If Shinjuku station is not supported I’ll be seriously disappointed because if Shinjuku station underground doesn’t qualify as a Japanese mall in the Apple universe, nothing will.

indoor mapped malls
Apple Map Indoor mapping launch list

Japan is not on the airport indoor map launch list but the major Tokyo stations are a much better place to start.

Reality Check

Nick Heer has praised Justin O’Beirne’s A Year of Google & Apple Maps. Lots of people have. Nick says, “This article is so good that Apple could almost use it as a todo list. And they probably should.”

Really? Isn’t this exactly the kind of work O’Beirne should have been doing when he created and ran Apple’s cartography group?

So Nick, is it really fair to give all that praise when O’Beirne pokes fun at his former Apple colleagues as they suffer in silence fixing the cartography mess that O’Beirne helped create in the first place?

I don’t think so.

Three Screenshots That Say All You Need to Know About Apple Maps Japan

I have reviewed Apple Maps, Google Maps and Yahoo Japan Maps extensively, but finding a simple and easy to understand comparison that elegantly summarizes the differences of the three Japanese map products is difficult, almost impossible.

Recently I found one. Three actually, that say it all and neatly show the vastly different  cartography principles and map priorities of Apple, Google and Yahoo Japan.

Finding Places in Japanese Cities
Navigating Japanese metropolitan areas is always a challenge. Building names are a crucial piece of address information that helps users find and investigate places. Digital map designers too easily fall into the trap of thinking that GPS, Wi-Fi triangulation and drop-pins solve everything. They don’t.

Physical addresses that directly correspond to the written addresses in digital maps are the last best resort when all else goes wrong, or when a user is in a hurry to a business appointment and needs to find “Maruichi Biru (Bld)” right away. Here are three screenshots, one each from Yahoo Japan Map, Google Maps and Apple Maps that show how each product handles this important information.

Yahoo Japan Map

Yahoo Japan Map view north of Asagaya station, Tokyo

Yahoo Japan Map has building name details cleanly arranged with highly readable text size and contrast. Yahoo Map is a good balance of important information, marquee signage (Mos Burger, Natural Lawson, etc), icons for food and shopping with matched slightly colored text.

Google Maps

Google Map view north of Asagaya station, Tokyo

Google Maps is a little more garish with triple c (color coded custom) icons and 3D outlines. 3D outlines look ‘cool’ but are not so helpful as you might think: they get in the way when viewing dense locations.

Notice the building name placement: differently sized text labels, wildly inconsistent text positions. The Google mapping algorithm squishes building names were they can fit, legibility be damned. I’ll bet the bigger text labels are businesses that buy Google advertising.

Google doesn’t have as much data detail as Yahoo Japan either. Here is a closeup comparison of a building arcade the houses many small shops. Google is missing a lot.

Apple Maps

Apple Map view north of Asagaya station, Tokyo

There isn’t anything to say. Apple Maps isn’t even in the game of providing or labeling building names in Japan.