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) Directions: driving, transit, bike, walking, (2) Search: pre-canned Nearby, Point of Interest, etc. (3) The two different versions of Look Around, (4) Guides, (5) 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. So Apple uses many different local data suppliers of varying quality to deliver most of these services for each country. And most regions outside of major metropolitan areas only offer a small sub-set of those services.

Nobody maps the vast world Apple Maps better than Justin O’Beirne but even he limits his analysis to cartography, Apple data collection and feature availability. 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 Zenrin.
  • Extremely uneven quality from Point of Interest (POI) data suppliers
  • Poor data vetting and coordination on the Apple Maps system side (duplicates, etc.) with no real 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 for legibility.

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. The only truly and widely available feature beyond the basics (Driving, Walking, Nearby) is Transit 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. Justin O’Beirne will be covering it soon and won’t repeat his efforts here. 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
Transit notifications are finally here but in my extensive testing, I found the design to be weird, inconsistent and the notification mechanism is not reliable. 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 in Japan 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.

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. Take 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 have POI information and some don’t. Tokyo changes quickly but Look Around is not improving or even keeping up and the data collection effort remains very limited compared to America, Europe and Australia. The perplexing Editor Recommendation Guides are in English language only in a Japanese language product. Indoor maps don’t include stations. And so it goes.

Instead of spreading themselves thin, Apple would do better to put new features on hold and rebuild the basic foundation. Because until that happens, Apple Maps Japan, a product that still 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

The Weekly #1

July 27, 2021

With so little real news to write about these days, I’m trying out a weekly digest format instead of individual itty bitty posts. Sticking with a mundane regular schedule is also good practice, we’ll see how it goes.

Tokyo 2020 TP Transit Card
Foreign media (already in Japan as opposed to those coming for the event who are limited by protocols for the first 14 days) covering the Tokyo Olympics were issued a special ‘TP Card’ limited transit pass covering Tokyo region transit July 10~ August 11. Dan Orlowitz who covers sports for the Japan Times tweeted some pictures of the pass. Look carefully at the transit gate display screen, there are some very interesting things going on: (1) The display language is English (nice touch), (2) The card balance is 0. The card itself is issued by JR East and is a Suica commuter card with a 1 month pass and the balance turned ‘off’, that is to say that TP Card numbers are ‘block listed’ for any recharge function.

The TP Card shows a way forward for Transit IC (Suica, PASMO, etc.) that started with Welcome Suica: more flexible options, discount and special passes for all kinds of users and uses. The next important step will be getting these, along with 2 in 1 Region cards, on mobile.


Is Apple Pay Overrated?
What technology works and doesn’t work for people in everyday life is always a fascinating subject. Mike at Tech702 asks a good question: is Apple Pay overrated? For Mike in daily Las Vegas life, yes Apple Pay is completely overrated. I saw much of the same during my Salt Lake City summer stay in 2018, although Smiths grocery had just started taking Apple Pay at the time. Did they pull the plug? It’s a good reminder that retail chains and banks in America switch loyalties without notice and the payments infrastructure is all over the place, witness Targets changing their accepted credit card lineup when I was in Salt Lake.

Some snobby Europeans like to look down on America and other places they perceive as not being up to speed with contactless payments. The truth is when Japanese journalists like Junya Suzuki take a good look at state of European contactless payments, it’s not so great either. The state of contactless payments around the world is still very much a touch and go thing.


iOS 15 Beta 3 Score Card
iOS 15 reached beta 3 last week. Here’s how it’s panning out:

Apple Maps new cartography continues to evolve. Japanese roads were decolorized, railway lines are different and drawn in harder to see light blue. Overall I think dark mode is works better than light mode (better contrast, easier to pick out details, etc.). See Justin O’Beirne‘s page for details. Transit Notifications are also improved slightly but still only work for surface transit. Forget about using it on the subway. Despite the fancy redecoration Apple still refuses to label the Sea of Japan (since 2020). Unnecessary, dumb and insulting.

Weather App: still only shows temperature maps which I think are useless. Forget about precipitation which is the killer feature for any weather app worth using. Air Quality doesn’t apply to Japan as there is no national standard.

Last but not least, Apple Music and Apple TV are basically useless in iOS 15 b3, more 3rd party app are crashing too. Hopefully b4 will be stable.


Ossan’s Love in Hong Kong?
Just when I thought the Ossan’s Love franchise had run out of gas, it seems the Hong Kong version of the Japanese series is also a hit and making waves instead of giggles, although calling it “sugar-coated marijuana” is pretty funny. If the Hong Kong version is anything like the Japanese one, it is sugar-coated silliness. For my money the other Japanese hit gay themed series ‘What did you eat yesterday?‘ was not only a lot more engaging, funny, serious and thought provoking, it was also useful as a cooking show. Kinda like Shinya Shokudo (Midnight Diner) with better interior decorating and worth the time investment.

Have a good week and enjoy the Olympics.

iOS 15: A12 Bionic fine print features

Japanese media reaction to Apple’s WWDC21 Keynote was a big ‘meh’. Not surprising as many iOS 15 features won’t be available for Japanese iPhone users who are well acquainted with being a 1st tier market for selling Apple hardware but a 3rd tier market afterthought for Apple services. They also probably read the iOS 15 preview website fine print at the bottom of the page, every other line reads: available on iPhone (XS/XR) with A12 Bionic and later. Bottom line: to run all the iOS 15 bells and whistles you need iPhone XS and later. Here’s the list of iOS 15 features that require A12 Bionic and later:

  • FaceTime: Spatial audio, Portrait mode
  • Wallet: Car keys, Home keys, Office key, Hotel key and ID in Wallet (listed as iPhone XS and later instead of A12 Bionic for some strange reason, Home key and Office Key ‘coming in a software update to iOS 15’)
  • Maps: Interactive globe, Detailed new city experience, Immersive walking directions
  • Live Text
  • Siri: On-device speech processing, On-device personalization, Offline support, Fast on-device processing,
  • Dictation: On-device dictation, Continuous dictation
  • Weather: New animated backgrounds
  • Health: walking Steadiness

There appears to be a mistake that lists iPhone XS for UWB car keys. It should read iPhone 11 and later for UWB Car keys with remote keyless entry controls.

The A12 Bionic and later requirement for Wallet keys is easy to understand: Express Cards with power reserve. It is vital that people can unlock car and home doors even when their iPhone battery is out of juice. Up to 5 hours of power reserve makes a huge difference and it even works with UWB car keys, a surprising new development I hope to examine in the next post. Note the plural name difference: Home keys can be shared like Car keys. Hotel key and Office key are only for one.

The new Wallet car keys feature is rumored to be coming from Toyota, Honda and Nissan but nothing has been announced even though NTT Docomo demonstrated UWB car keys in action last January. Likewise there are no local 3rd party announcements regarding home keys and office key but the FeliCa and MIFARE support that comes standard in iPhone 8 and later makes it easy to implement local digital key services for Wallet. The Japanese My Number ID digital card is due to launch on Android Osaifu Keitai smartphones in 2022. The Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications who oversee the project have said they are in discussions with Apple to bring My Number ID card to Wallet.

For Japanese iPhone users however there are many features that just won’t matter because they won’t be available. The gap between services announced for USA/Europe/China is wide and can take years to make it to Japan. For iOS 15 a comparison looks like this:

Live Type for Japanese will be sorely missed, Weather maps is a tossup, Apple Maps JP is the usual mess. However even Japanese locations get the completely new cartography design unveiled in iOS 15 beta 1, the first real makeover since the 2012 launch. Only A12 Bionic and later devices get the full range of redesigned cartography but even on older devices iOS 15 new city maps do a nice job of minimizing the previous mess of orange, blue, red, brown Point of Interest clutter. Unfortunately the new cartography also has some major weirdness:

The new iOS 15 map cartography touched off an interesting Twitter thread:

A: Maps are supposed to be a reflection of reality. I’m sure they wouldn’t show a curve in a road that is straight in real life, so why put curves on square buildings? How can someone at Apple look at this and think “These curves sure do make usability better!”

B: As a counterpoint for discussion, where does “reflection of reality” fit with tube/metro/underground rail maps (eg. London, Tokyo)? I think ‘realistic’ and ‘accuracy’ are two different things for maps. As for thinking the style choices are useful and aid comprehension, well🤔

C: With iOS 15 emphasizing 3D/AR viewfinder navigation for pedestrians, I’m definitely expecting my square buildings to stay square and round buildings to stay round. Otherwise the feature will be useless for me!

B: Ok, now this is a use case that demonstrates the problem in the design choice🙇‍♂️👍

I plan to cover iOS 15 Apple Pay and Apple Maps in more detail after WWDC21 wraps this week.

Look Around expands, Guides, Indoor maps for Haneda and Fukuoka Airports

Apple Maps Japan was all over the place this week with Look Around expansions, Nearby Guides, and airport Indoor Map additions. Did Apple do all this for WWDC21 keynote bragging points?

It was clear that Look Around was coming to Kanazawa and Sendai any day, and it finally did. A lot of holes are still there such as the famous Kanazawa Kenroku-en gardens which are being pedestrian mapped right now through June. The same goes for Sendai. Greater Tokyo area Look Around gained some coverage in the Hachioji region, Osaka/Kyoto/Nara has gained some coverage in Otsu City Shiga Prefecture, the same probably applies to other Look Around cities. This time lets hope Look Around doesn’t mysteriously disappear and reappear like it did with Hiroshima.

In other fun Nearby search has been revamped (iPhone but not iPad apparently) and now show Guides. Unfortunately they are not location aware, most of them are in America. Readers in different countries are seeing the same American recommendations and scratching heads. Last but not least, Haneda and Fukuoka Airport gained Indoor Maps. Haneda was listed in the iOS Feature Availability page over a year ago and removed, but never showed in Apple Maps. It finally made it…for real. Now all we need are Indoor Maps for major train stations. Apple Maps won’t be real for many until it does.

WWDC21 Apple Maps Japan Wish List

Apple Maps has settled into a comfortable glacial groove. Improvements are announced at WWDC but actual service rollouts are literally all over the map. Smaller markets like the UK get improved services long before larger markets like Japan. The identity of Apple Maps in Japan is, at best, 2nd rate with most users long since settled on top tier ‘free’ map services like Google Maps and Yahoo Japan Maps.

iOS 15
What new tentpole Apple Map features can we expect when iOS 15 is announced at WWDC21? In a word crowding information, for transit certainly, and perhaps crowd heat map overlay similar to what Yahoo Japan Maps have. I also think Apple will probably leverage their Dark Sky weather prediction assets directly in Apple Maps, again similar to what Yahoo Japan Maps do. An hour by hour local precipitation map overlay is extremely handy to have, I rely on it all the time. Indoor Maps needs an overhaul. Airports and malls are one thing but Apple Maps has yet to address the train station problem. It’s a glaring feature hole.

What’s missing locally?
Since every country has different Apple Map services, the rest of this post will focus on Japan, what’s missing and what needs to be improved. The basic problem Apple has is poor map data suppliers and poor verification, specifically: (1) Map data provided by IPC, (2) Point of Interest (POI) data provided by a host of 3rd party suppliers (Tabelog, Jalan, Foursquare, Tripadvisor, Yelp, open sources).

IPC data is crap, there is no other way to say it. Outside of metropolitan areas it is worthless. On the POI side Tablog and Jalan are decent but the rest are marginal or worthless. The Apple Maps system has never been good at coordinating various POI sources, duplicate POI are a never ending problem.

New Maps
One component of New Maps, Look Around for Tokyo, Osaka/Kyoto and Nagoya launched in August 2020. Fukuoka, Takamatsu and Hiroshima were added in December though the latter has been problematic. 2021 should see rollouts for the Ishikawa and Sendai areas though overall additions will continue to be slow. New Maps cartography has yet to appear in Japan, given the slow data collection pace limited to metropolitan areas, I’m beginning to suspect it never will.

Transit • Cycling
Transit is a very important service item for the Japan market, competition is fierce. Compared to Yahoo Japan and Google, Apple Maps has yet to incorporate any transit data providers beyond Jourdan. Real-Time Transit requires data directly from transit operators which Apple has signed up. For that reason I don’t think Japan will be getting real-time transit during the iOS 15 cycle. Ditto for cycling routes.

Of course there is one thing that Apple could do to fix most of their JP map service problems: dump IPC and sign with Zenrin. Like all things Apple Maps, any dramatic improvement seems unlikely.