Another Google Maps Moat News Cycle

Buckle up map fans, another Google Maps vs. Apple Maps news cycle just arrived. In case you forgot the cycle goes like this:

  • Justin O’Beirne posts a new analysis
  • Tech writers swoon (Gruber following Heer right on cue) but one of them says, “I don’t use Google Maps, Apple Maps works just fine for me.”
  • Overseas commentators clock in saying “that might be true in the USA but Apple Maps suck here in XXX.

OK, after a long hibernation the once and future Apple Maps cartographer head honcho Justin O’Beirne is trolling his former employer again and posted his analysis of the iOS 12 Apple Maps reboot. It is very long so here is a summary:

The Apple Maps team is collecting lots of data all by itself and processing it in India <everybody knew that already>

But

Apple Maps still relies too much on 3rd rate 3rd party data supplies like TomTom, Yelp, Foursquare, etc. <ditto>

And

Apple Maps does a poor job of coordinating, editing and vetting different sets of data. Because of this Apple Maps really sucks at labeling and placing things correctly. <duh and duh>

The most interesting bit is the footnote at the end:Apple's New Map Footnote

O’Beirne knows his tech audience well. His ‘Google is sucking up ever more information and contributors who know how to label things for AR…how will Apple ever compete?’ line of reasoning is calculated to play well with that crowd because nobody will bother asking questions like ‘how will Google vet all those local map contributions’ and assume machine AI algorithms will take care of that along with geopolitics and human mischief. Who vets the vetters and how?

AI technology has its place of course but will never replace human understanding. A small team of smart editors can tie together maps, transit and booking into a handy service. A real team of local knowledgeable talented editors doing more with less is exactly what makes Yahoo Japan Maps a much better product than Google Maps or Apple Maps for Japanese users. Unfortunately this isn’t sexy or interesting to the Western tech crowd because it isn’t technology. So O’Beirne will continue to get the clicks and the praise. To which I can only say, another hit with the tech blogger crowd for Justin O’Beirne…you go Justin O’Beirne! It’s all great fun.

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Apple Maps Japan Quick Point: indoor maps

Before starting let me get this out of the way: indoor mapping on digital devices is in the stone age and basically sucks. It doesn’t matter if it’s Google, Apple or Yahoo Japan Maps. It all sucks, some less than others. That would be Yahoo Japan Maps.

Indoor maps overwhelm the user with mediocre information and detail they don’t need, map vomit, and are more confusing than helpful. Getting intelligently collected human curated high density map information and presenting it in clear, concise user-friendly fashion is a challenge, especially so for indoor maps which have to collapse 3D information into a 2D format.

Apple Maps Japan has not officially announced indoor map availability yet but you can see it in action at Narita International Airport on iOS. Here is a quick comparison big view of Narita with Apple Maps, Google Maps and Yahoo Japan Maps.

As usual Yahoo Japan Maps has the most intelligent use of Japanese text, high contrast and different text sizes to emphasize significance but it ends here: Yahoo Japan Maps does not have indoor maps for airports as they have focused efforts on major train station indoor mapping instead. In terms of real everyday use, it’s the smarter choice.

Comparison closeups of Terminal 1 3rd Floor show that Apple Maps still suffers from the same old problems of using 3rd rate 3rd party data suppliers with poor vetting and coordination: some stores are located out on the tarmac. The Apple Maps reboot effort has yet to be felt in Japan.

A comparison closeup view of Terminal 1 4th Floor check in and store areas: Apple has a good idea in offering canned search buttons for Check-in, Restaurants, Cafes, restroom, etc. Unfortunately the iOS UI control puts Japanese names at the bottom of the every list and tapping a canned search button only highlights results that add another layer of visual noise. It would be much better if canned searches also hide or grey out unrelated details and offer Japanese names at the top of every list with alphabetized English names at the bottom. Meanwhile Google Maps uses the same hunt and peck ‘one size fits all’ search conventions for indoor and outdoor maps.

Realistically I cannot imagine using any of these indoor maps in real life on an iPhone screen. It’s much easier walking to an information booth or asking airport or station staff for directions. Until indoor maps and Siri get much smarter and tightly integrated with highly reliable information on the backend, I don’t see these solutions solving problems for anybody.

Wake me when we get there: Apple Maps Transit Missing Features

Apple Maps Transit in Japan has a great transit data supplier, the same one as Google, but I don’t use it much. It’s just not that handy at finding the fastest route or cheapest route or route with the fewest transfer points, it doesn’t let me sort results or search for different train times on the fly.

For a map app the geosynchronous functions of Apple Map Transit are curiously weak. Even after engaging a route Apple Maps Transit has trouble keeping track of where it is or letting you know. Forget about geo anything if you are riding the subway, you’ll be in the dark the whole way.

Apple Maps Transit is a plodding one trick pony. That’s why everybody in Japan uses dedicated transit apps like Yahoo Japan Transit or the venerable Eki-supato (cleverly combining station-eki + expert = eki-supato, get it?). Not only do these dedicated apps find great transit routes quickly they let you sort results quickly by fare, fast, number of transit points, etc., or just quickly move to earlier~later blocks of departure times.

After you engage a route you have all kinds of granular alerts for transit points and destination points, and great geosynchronous feedback, you are here and your station is coming up. Eki-supato really knows their user base though, I mean a transit app really isn’t a Japanese transit app without “Drunk Mode” to make sure hard-working, hard-drinking salarymen don’t miss the last train home.

Maybe the Apple Maps team should create “Eddy Mode” to keep Eddy Cue awake and focused at Apple Map team meetings. It might help the Apple Maps Reboot make some real progress.

Apple Maps Japan Finally Adds Indoor Mapping

Almost a year later than first expected, Apple has finally added indoor maps for Japan on iOS 11 and iOS 12. Narita Airport (Chiba) and Chubu Airport (Nagoya) are the kickoff points for what is hopefully going to be a continuous rollout. Major airports like Haneda and stations such as Tokyo and Shinjuku are still AWOL and the iOS Feature Availability list has not been updated yet.

One of the problems that Apple Maps faces in Japan is that multiple agencies hold different indoor map data sources. Shinjuku station for example is a collection of 4 different railway companies and more than 3 subway lines. Collecting and coordinating a complete robust data set takes time.

Apple Maps Japan is still missing some other major services available in other areas: traffic, lane guidance and speed limits. It will be interesting to see if the Apple Maps makeover gets any mention during the September 12 event.

Apple Maps Japan Reboot Challenge: Information Density

Asagaya Pearl Center Arcade Roof

Now that the Apple Maps reboot has been announced and is starting a slow rollout in America, I want to highlight some of the challenges Apple Maps Japan faces in an ongoing quick point “Reboot Challenge” series. The first topic is information density.

Google Maps and Apple Maps are good at some things, but presenting complex information-dense localities like Tokyo in a consistent user-friendly way is a perpetual weak point. Even local champ Yahoo Japan Maps does not do it well.

Here is a quick point comparison of a location in Tokyo, the Asagaya Pearl Center covered shopping arcade that basically runs from JR Asayaga Station to City Hall. The challenge is how to present stacked information on a flat map. In this example there is a large Matsumoto-Kiyoshi Drug Store on the 1st floor and a large Saizeria Restaurant on the 2nd floor.

Asagaya Pearl Center

Let’s compare the usual suspects: Apple Maps, Google Maps and Yahoo Japan Maps, and see how they stack up.

Apple Maps does surprisingly well listing both drug store and restaurant but not geographically correct: they are on top of each other not side by side. It also lists the nearby 7-Eleven, again geographically incorrect as it occupies part of a 1st floor with 2 store entrances on either side. Google Maps and Yahoo Japan Maps simply show the 2nd floor restaurant, delete the 1st floor drug store and don’t bother with 7-Eleven.

Indoor mapping isn’t necessarily the best solution. Detailed indoor maps easily overwhelm the user with too much detail. We don’t need more map vomit. The trick here is to come up with a simple intuitive UI that quickly shows stacked information then gets out of the way. Unfortunately nobody has come up with an elegant solution yet. It’s a good challenge for any digital map cartography team.