Comparing Apple Maps JP Look Around pedestrian additions

One of the side benefits when digging into the mysterious disappearance and reappearance Look Around in Hiroshima back in March 2021 was that I copied the links for listed pedestrian image collection points for March 2021~October 2021. The links are neat in that they preciously show what map points were collected. The links can no longer be accessed from the Image Collection page but still work.

Most, but not all, of the pedestrian image collected areas were added to Look Around recently. Public places such are as parks are there, but university campuses, shrines and temples are not. Shinto Shrines and Buddhist temples are officially public property in same category are parks but it’s not clear why Apple does not include there in Look Around when Google Maps includes them in Street View. Another mystery for another day. In the mean time have fun exploring Look Around in big grassy areas in river parks:

Miyagi
Sendai
Tomiya

Tokyo
Shinjuku
Chiyoda
Machida

Kanagawa
Yokohama
Fujisawa
Zushi
Yamato

Ishikawa
Kanazawa
Hakusan
Nonochi
Kawakita

Hiroshima
Hiroshima City
Nisogi
Hatsukaichi
Yano

Fukuoka
Fukuoka City
Kasuga
Itoshima
Kasuya-gun

Kagawa
Takamatsu
Sanuki

Apple Maps Japan Real-Time Transit is fake

I was surprised when discovering Japan is listed for real-time transit in the iOS and iPadOS Feature Availability page. It’s a fairly recent addition but nothing has changed in iOS 15 Apple Maps Japan transit directions, it’s delivering exactly the same transit info since the iOS 15 release, which itself was the same as iOS 14. Apple is slapping a new label on an old product.

It’s helpful to compare Japan so-called real-time transit with other regions that have had it for some time: Boston, New York, Los Angles.

Scheduled vs On-time departure
It’s very easy way to tell when real-time transit is real: upcoming departure time will display a colored network icon, green for on-time, red for delay. There are other real-time departure time notifications for updated departure-times and cancelled trains. This is the basic ‘real’ real-time transit benchmark.

More advanced Apple Maps real-time transit locations also incorporate train positions on the map and in the time schedule sheet but not all real-time listed regions have this (Boston does, NYC does not, etc.).

the most advanced real-time transit regions display train position on the map

Apple Maps JP transit directions only show static scheduled departure times pulled from the transit supplier time table server, the same data since Japan transit launched in October 2016. Static ‘scheduled’ times do not update regardless of delay or stoppage warnings. The result is confusing, unreliable transit information that Apple calls ‘real-time transit’.

Google Maps JP, of course, does it real. Here’s a comparison of the different information presented by Apple and Google for the same delay on the JR Shonan-Shinjuku line. Google updates departure times, Apple does not.

Google incorporates live train positions and also include train car and station crowdedness information…all missing from Apple Maps.

Google Maps Japan real-time train positions

As Apple and Google both use the same transit information supplier Jourdan you would expect them to deliver the same service quality, but this is not the case. Why? Google Maps also incorporate real-time transit information from JR Group companies and private transit operators. JR East for example supplies live train position and individual car information (crowdedness, temperature) that they use for their own app to the Public Transportation Open Data Center (PTODC). Japanese real-time transit information is readily available but Apple Maps does not go the extra step of incorporating this information and advertise static scheduled transit times as ‘real-time’.

Apple Maps Japan faux real-time transit appears to be the same situation for Taiwan and Hong Kong, both listed for ‘real-Time’. Taken together with the Sea of Japan deletion and other indications of (willful?) cultural ignorance, it’s another sign that Apple Maps is lost in Japan.

Apple’s cultural values, fantasy vs reality

We live in a strange time where cultural values have replaced morals. Perhaps people are more comfortable with ‘values’ because they seem removed from any religious context. Yet morals are the timeless innate recognition of good vs bad from within, while values are expedient and change with the times, influenced by internal desires and the perceptions and pressures of outsiders, which is why the concept of value is associated with money and barter.

Apple promotes privacy, security and equality as their cultural values but revelations regarding Tim Cook’s five year agreement with China authorities throws cold water on this warm fuzzy ‘we stand by our users’ fantasy. Some users, like markets, are more important than others. In Tim Cook’s Apple, users and markets are just interchangeable cogs. John Gruber quotes the eye opening piece from The INFORMATION:

Sometime in 2014 or early 2015, China’s State Bureau of Surveying and Mapping told members of the Apple Maps team to make the Diaoyu Islands, the objects of a long-running territorial dispute between China and Japan, appear large even when users zoomed out from them. Chinese regulators also threatened to withhold approval of the first Apple Watch, scheduled for release in 2015, if Apple didn’t comply with the unusual request, according to internal documents.

Some members of the team back at Apple’s headquarters in Cupertino, Calif., initially balked at the demand. But the Maps app had become a priority for Apple, so eventually the company complied. The Diaoyu Islands, when viewed in Apple Maps in mainland China, continue to appear on a larger scale than surrounding territories.

THE INFORMATION: ‘INSIDE TIM COOK’S SECRET $275 BILLION DEAL WITH CHINESE AUTHORITIES

Note that The Information writer Wayne Ma never uses Senkaku Islands, the Japanese name for islands, only the Chinese Diaoyu name. I’ve already posted about Apple Maps removing the Sea of Japan name, both in English and Japanese. Let’s compare Apple Maps search results based on language names.

An Apple Maps search for ‘Sea of Japan’ in English and Japanese completely ignores geography, the result is business listings, but searching the Korean ‘East Sea’ shows the area and coordinates with no name. Searches for Senkaku and Diaoyu in respective languages both show area and coordinates with no name.

In an Apple world where some markets are more important than others, I guess the conclusion is that Korean trumps Japan because Apple needs Samsung more than they need Japanese suppliers. And of course China trumps everything else because Tim Cook’s Apple gambled everything on China, production-wise and market-wise. In this world Apple loves Taiwan for Taiwan Semiconductor, but not the Taiwanese flag Emoji which was silently dropped into the Apple memory hole, just like the Sea of Japan.

I don’t think many Japanese users care, simply because they use Google Maps or Yahoo Japan Maps that are much better products for Japan and show everything properly without fear or favor. Google doesn’t do business in China so they don’t have to cater to Chinese demands for doing business.

Nevertheless Apple doesn’t have a good image despite the popularity of iPhone in Japan. Among Japanese suppliers, working with Apple is known as the kiss of death because Apple has a nasty habit of switching suppliers, and taking the manufacturing expertise that they gained to Chinese suppliers. The Tim Cook supply chain model.

Apple likes to portray their cultural values as nurturing the next generation of software programers. Those purported values certainly don’t apply to nurturing the next generation of manufacturers. As Tim Cook’s China agreement shows, Apple cultural values are something to barter for something they value more.

UPDATE
Gruber and friends see all this as just ‘diplomacy’:

The whole situation is a fascinating study in diplomacy. As Heer observes, it’s wrong to look at it as a one-sided relationship — that China makes demands, and Apple acquiesces. Apple certainly gets a lot from China — they assemble the vast majority of their products there, and it’s their second biggest consumer market for selling those products. But China gets a lot from Apple. Apple is arguably the most prestigious corporation in the world, and inarguably one of the most prestigious. China benefits from that relationship on the world stage. As Ben Thompson wrote yesterday in a subscribers-only Stratechery update:

Apple remains the most visible and most impressive example of China’s manufacturing prowess. That is extremely valuable both in terms of China’s image and also its capabilities: Apple doesn’t just benefit from China’s capabilities, it also enhances them, in a virtuous cycle.

This isn’t diplomacy, it’s slimy corrupt ‘realpolitik’ that would make Henry Kissinger proud, but with corporations acting like nations. On one level any win-win ‘virtuous cycle’ analysis is arrogant big-time tech blogger fools fooling themselves. On a deeper level it’s deceitful geopolitical discussion. They refuse to acknowledge the ugly reality for what it is.

Apple Maps Japan mislabels cemeteries, digs own grave

Dear Apple Maps JP team: this cute rabbit stone lantern in front of Myohoji temple main hall is not the cemetery

In the latest Apple Maps Japan installment of how not to run a digital service, we can now add graveyards to the long list of things done poorly or incompetently. About a month ago I noticed new Point of Interest icons appearing on temple buildings close to traditional ‘manji’ Buddhist temple Point of Interest icon marks. The new POI is a western style gravestone with a flower, but the new icon names are in English, not Japanese. As they appeared to be duplicate Point of Interest information I reported them as duplicates which is not easy to do in the current Apple Map problem report mechanism.

Soon the new icons were everywhere and I realized that Apple Maps was attempting to mark cemeteries inside temple compounds but making a mess of it: randomly labeling temple halls as cemeteries instead of correctly identifying cemetery areas in temple compounds or nearby in separate plots of land. As you might expect there are also problems with the POI information, web links don’t always work, addresses are incorrect for contacting cemetery offices, etc. And then there are user ratings.

As a rule Apple Maps locks user ratings for public and religious institutions, limiting them to places of business (restaurants, etc.). This is the sensible and right thing to do. Unfortunately the new cemetery POI allows user ratings. I can only imagine this is a system error that needs to be fixed.

The whole affair is classic Apple Maps Japan: Apple signs up a new POI data provider but doesn’t vet any of the data quality, loads it into the system and boom. Duplicates and mistakes all over the place, literally, that can stick around for years. Currently Myohoji temple in Koenji has: 2 manji POI, one from Recruit Jalan that marks the temple office, one from another public based source that marks the cemetery, and 1 new English only cemetery POI icon that marks a nice little stone lantern in front of the main hall.

It’s a mess that could have been avoided with a minimal amount of data verification and vetting, not even checking to make sure the data is localized for Japanese. Wasn’t the new Apple Maps supposed to fix this? I guess Apple doesn’t consider it a problem. I say it again, the more I use iOS 15 Apple Maps, the less I like it.

Final thoughts on iOS 15 Apple Maps

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. Most regions outside of major metropolitan areas only have a small sub-set of those services.

Nobody maps the vast Apple Maps effort better than Justin O’Beirne but even he limits his analysis to cartography and listing feature availability rollouts. His useful availability table illustrates the dilemma, as you can see Maps feature availability is all over the place.

Justin O’Beirne Apple Maps Feature Availability (9/2021)

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, 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, poor or missing localization, etc.) with no viable way to report duplication 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 which everybody seems to either love or hate neatly summed up in the above Twitter timeline screenshot. O’Beirne will cover every nook and cranny of iOS 15 cartography in a long promised, but repeatedly postponed review opus. Until that appears 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.

Transit Improvements
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 given how slow the Apple Maps image collection effort in Japan is, Look Around isn’t keeping up let alone expanding much. On the whole and the local data collection effort remains very limited compared to America, Europe and Australia. 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, 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


Previous Apple Maps JP coverage:
iOS 15 Apple Maps wish list
Apple ‘Look Around’ Japan launch
iOS 14 Apple Maps wish list