Apple Maps Japan Reboot Start Line

Apple Japan Map Data CollectionNow that the Apple Maps reboot has been announced and is starting a slow rollout in San Francisco, what kind of improvements can Japanese users expect in the months ahead? It will be a very slow rollout as Apple’s map data collection effort has only just started in Japan. Slow is good: 3rd party Japanese map data suppliers, imperfect though they may be, should only be swapped out when Apple’s own map data is properly collected, vetted and edited.

It’s clear that Apple plans to incorporate local cultural user conventions with the new map data. Matthew Panzarino:

The maps need to be usable, but they also need to fulfill cognitive goals on cultural levels that go beyond what any given user might know they need. For instance, in the U.S., it is very common to have maps that have a relatively low level of detail even at a medium zoom. In Japan, however, the maps are absolutely packed with details at the same zoom, because that increased information density is what is expected by users.

Actually Matthew they don’t. The biggest challenge of mapping Japan is presenting information density intelligently. Like a good editor who cleans up and brings clarity to a cluttered and confused article submission, a good map team intelligently edits complex information making it easy to understand and find things on the map.

I have been highly critical of the Justin O’Beirne led Apple Maps 2012 cartography design that is still in place because it’s a poor design fit for high density maps areas like Japan. Here’s a quick big 3 (Yahoo Japan Maps, Google, Apple) comparison of Shinjuku Station west exit area:

It’s easy to see that Apple Maps shows way too much stuff and overwhelms the user with information. To paraphrase Mean Girls, this is map vomit. The poor cartography design and poor editing, Apple’s misuse of ‘3C’ color coded icons for restaurants, hotels, schools, etc., gobbles up precious screen real estate forcing users to hunt for things.

Google Maps goes too far the other way and strips out too much information forcing the user to zoom in and Google’s 3C icon scheme is curiously lame.

The Yahoo Japan Maps team gets it just right with better color contrast, easy to read Japanese text labels with different sizes and intelligently deployed icons that reserve 3C icons for map search views. This is good map editing in action.

Here are possible changes I will be on the lookout for:

  • Higher contrast cartography with better Japanese text labeling
  • No map vomit: a default map view with far fewer, better designed icons and 3C icons reserved for map search
  • Intelligent indoor mapping for major Japanese stations
  • 3D mapping that doesn’t obscure surrounding map information
  • Traffic, Lane Guidance, Speed Limits and other missing iOS features of Apple Maps Japan
  • More Apple collected Japanese map information with missing pieces proved by top-tier JP map supplier Zenrin. The less 3rd rate 3rd party JP map data from Yelp, Foursquare and IPC the better
  • Destination check lists: smart transit information that updates on the fly and lets me set more than one destination

It will be slow but slow, constant intelligent updates will get Apple Maps Japan where it needs to go and finally deliver a superior map experience for Japanese iOS customers.

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Apple Is Rebuilding Maps From The Ground Up

Apple Map vans coming to Japan was just a small taste of things to come. Matthew Panzarino got the big scoop on the new Apple Maps. In addition to Apple collecting their own map data, cartography is also due for a major makeover.

Instead of doing the “Google Maps is the world standard so screw local cultural conventions” thing, Apple seems to be going out of its way to embrace them:

The maps need to be usable, but they also need to fulfill cognitive goals on cultural levels that go beyond what any given user might know they need. For instance, in the U.S., it is very common to have maps that have a relatively low level of detail even at a medium zoom. In Japan, however, the maps are absolutely packed with details at the same zoom, because that increased information density is what is expected by users.

In Japan Yahoo Japan Maps is the gold standard to beat but it looks like Apple Maps is about to get interesting again.

Apple Maps Japan Update June 2018

Apple Maps Japan Data Collection
Apple’s Japanese page is poorly localized for Japan: an English title is better than nothing but should be in Japanese (fixed now).

It is nice to know that the Apple Maps team is getting serious about mapping Japanese data themselves. Most of the problems with Apple Maps Japan to date have been caused by 3rd rate 3rd party data suppliers so Apple collecting their own map data is a start towards a better map product for Japanese customers.

There are some notably omissions in the data collection startup list: only 20 of the 23 Tokyo wards are covered. Suginami-ku, Setagaya-ku and Nerima-ku are huge missing pieces along with the rest of the populous west Tokyo Chou line area (Mitaka, Tachikawa, etc.). Suginami-ku is one of the most important Tokyo districts, perhaps the most: whatever political party wins an election in Suginami wins Japan.

There are other big Apple Maps services that are missing in Japan: Indoor Maps were promised back at WWDC17 but have yet to appear, Traffic, Lane Guidance and Speed Limits are AWOL. Most of these services have been offered in Yahoo Japan Maps and Google Maps in Japan for years.

Even without their own data, Apple Maps Japan has made, (very) slow progress fixing some major data errors and holes. The Great Shibu Hot Spring Data Cutoff for example is finally fixed. This is how it looked 2 years ago:

This is how it looks today:

The Great Shibu Hot Spring Data Cutoff Fixed

The missing 2015 extensions to the Ken-O Expressway pointed out by blogger Train in 2017 looked like this:Missing Ken-O Highway

Today it looks like this:

The Missing Ken-O Highway Fixed

I have not checked all of my Apple Maps Japan error inventory but I think progress is being made. Now if Apple would only dump the horrible Justin O’Beirne era cartography design that dates back to 2012 and create something new, I might even get excited again.

Something Went Wrong in Siri’s and Apple Maps Development, Again

Tech writers keep coming back to Siri again and again. The latest being The Information’s scoop on, yet again, what went wrong with Siri’s development.

John Gruber on Siri September 2017:

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.

John Gruber on Siri March 2018:

The gist of The Information’s story is that Siri has existed for seven years without cohesive leadership or product vision, and the underlying technology is a mishmash of various systems that don’t work well together.

I wrote back in September that Siri’s and Apple Maps problems are one and the same. Gruber didn’t agree. That’s OK but the approaches and resulting organizational problems, where to focus and execute, really are one and the same DNA.

twitter maps 2

To paraphrase Steve Jobs, yet again, mistakes and problems are not a problem if Apple can find ’em and fix ’em. There is an important point in The Information’s story that Gruber mentions but fails to recognize:

Several former employees said Mr. Williamson made a number of decisions that the rest of the team disagreed with, including a plan to improve Siri’s capabilities only once a year….Team members said they argued in vain that that model was wrong for Siri, which they believed needed to be an online service that continuously improved, not updated annually.

Siri and Apple Maps never learned to walk and chew gum at the same time. Improvements are kept for the annual WWDC rollout, a strategic mistake that only adds to the public perception that Siri and Apple Maps never improve, which is not true.

If Apple simply ditched the annual improvement cycle for Siri and Apple Maps public perception would change for the better. The real work is long term but fixable. Mobile Me was a disaster and iCloud had a difficult birth, but iCloud did eventually learn how to walk and chew gum. Siri and Apple Maps can too.

Apple Maps Japan Quick Point: Ikebukuro Station Underground

Apple Maps does not offer Indoor Maps for Japan. Tokyo was on the Airport/Mall rollout list at WWDC 2017 but later dropped. Indoor maps for Airports and malls are not what people need or want in Japan anyway. The need to navigate Japanese underground station mazes. Here’s a quick look at Ikebukuro Station underground in Tokyo with Apple Maps, Yahoo Japan Maps and Google Maps.

A Birds-eye View
All 3 maps show the Ikebukuro station underground footprint in light red / pink. Yahoo Japan Maps is the only one with a indoor maps navigation UI. Apple Maps only goes as far as the station footprint, let’s compare indoor maps views from Yahoo Japan Maps and Google Maps.

Yahoo Japan Maps offers a master bird’s-eye view of Ikebukuro station underground when zoomed out. Yellow station exits are clearly marked. Store information is only shown when the user fully zooms in.

Google Maps does not offer a master bird’s-eye view of Ikebukuro station underground and forces the user to zoom in to see different parts of the same underground structure and access the indoor map UI. The Google Maps team does not believe that station exits are important information and omits them. Store icons clutter up the view when they are clearly not needed but that pays the bills.

Yahoo Japan Maps is the winner here.