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.

iOS 14.5 Apple Maps Japan in-house place ratings

In advance of a rumored iOS 14.5 rollout of Apple Maps in-house point of interest (POI) ratings for the USA, the feature went live today in Japan for iOS 14.5 RC users (and iPadOS•macOS devices logged in with the same Apple ID). Once past the introductory slash screen prompt in Maps app, various POI such as parks, restaurants, cafes, stores show the ability to rate and add photos. Based on limited checks it appears possible to rate and add photos to most 3rd party supplied Japanese POI data: Foursquare, Tabelog, Tripadvisor, but not Recruit’s Jalan, and not Yelp which is being phased out (good riddance). Hotels, Shinto Shrines, Buddhist temples, etc. are off limits, another good thing.

Poor quality 3rd party POI data has long been the bane of Apple Maps in Japan, and most other countries. I have doubts about Apple’s ability to filter and verify Apple ID user uploaded photos and ratings…but it’s probably better than the junky POI data Japan has now.

The POI rating and photo upload intro screen, tap continue to add the Maps service.

UPDATE: the feature has gone live for all users with the official iOS 14.5 release.

Look Around for Hiroshima Pulled (Updated)

Now you see it, now you don’t. The Apple Maps Japan story has been consistent…consistently flawed and second rate. Look Around was rolled out for the (now postponed) Tokyo Olympics in August 2020 covering greater Tokyo, Osaka and Nagoya but it hasn’t expanded much. A December 2020 update added Fukuoka, Hiroshima and Takamatsu but over the past week of March 8 or so, Hiroshima Look Around has disappeared. That nobody seems to have noticed or cares is all that you need to know about Apple Maps use in Japan.

This is the first time that Apple has pulled a Look Around region after the official rollout, why they would do so is a mystery. It may be temporary until Apple improves the quality and extends coverage (new pedestrian and car JP data collections starts this month) as the quality for December Look Out Japan additions is spotty. But I am not optimistic and even Justin O’Beirne thinks Japan is not a candidate for the next big update. Put another way, this just proves that Apple isn’t serious about their map product in Japan, after all Apple Maps refuses to even acknowledge the Sea of Japan.

Meanwhile Google Maps JP and Yahoo Japan Maps are pulling way ahead in transit directions that include real time transit and crowding information…and acknowledging the Sea of Japan. If the Tokyo Olympics goes ahead this year those will be the go-to solutions. Apple Maps Japan doesn’t offer it and has not signed on any transit company that provides real time transit and crowding information to Google and Yahoo Japan.

UPDATE
Tested Look Around on 4 devices with different network connections with Hiroshima missing from them all. The iPad had not been used for 2 weeks and briefly showed it for a split second until the Maps screen refreshed as the cache updated. An iOS user in Okayama confirmed it. One interesting bit about the Apple Maps Japan pedestrian image collection 2021 schedule: if you click on the link you can see exactly what areas are being mapped.

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

UPDATE 2
Look Around for Hiroshima was restored on March 19 but coverage is problematic, there are areas which do not display as Look Around coverage but work anyway. Hit and miss as to what works and what doesn’t.

Apple Maps Japan Look Around Expands to Hiroshima, Fukuoka, Takamatsu, Nara

Apple Maps vans and walkers were busy in Japan from May to October 2020 and the first cites to receive Look Around from the data sets are: Hiroshima, Fukuoka and Takamatsu. This is not part of the Apple Maps 2.0 ‘New Maps’ cartography that has rolled out in USA, Canada and UK, just the same lousy IPC map data with a Look Around cherry on top. According to Justin O’Beirn these were added in mid-December.

In addition to new areas he lists, the Look Around Tokyo area region has been extended deeper into the greater Kanto area with more Chiba, Saitama and Kanagawa coverage, though I don’t see any pedestrian data gains in areas that need it (major shrines, temples, parks, and other public areas off limits to vehicles). In the Kansai area, southern parts of Osaka and Nara have been added as well.

At this rate we should have Look Around additions for Sendai, Ishikawa, more Kanto and other regions coming soon. Apple Maps Look Around first appeared in August 2020 for Tokyo, Nagoya and Osaka regions from data collected in 2019.

Apple Maps Japan rolls out Look Around and Improved Map features (Updated)

Look Around is available in the greater Tokyo Kanto, Osaka Kansai and Nagoya areas in purple.. Green areas indicate Apple Maps 2.0 data updates nationwide

Apple flipped the switch for Apple Maps Japan ‘improved maps’ with Look Around for Tokyo, Osaka and Nagoya, and new map details nationwide. Initial navigation tests indicate turn by turn incorporates the new date for better directions. Siri also seems to have gained improved guidance with finer details: turn left, walk over the bridge, etc. Taken altogether, improved maps, improved Siri guidance, the new higher quality Japanese Siri voices and other Siri improvements will make iOS 14 a nice upgrade.

Tokyo area parks like Shinjuku Gyoen and Yoyogi are packed with new Apple Maps 2.0 details. A quick examination reveals Look Around is pretty much limited to roadside views. Major pedestrian data collection efforts are still ongoing across Japan through October and will be very important in rounding out both the feature set and improving navigation in later updates.

The Tokyo Olympics Update
The Apple Maps team worked to get this major update ready in time for the, now postponed, Tokyo Olympics. It’s great that Apple Maps Japan users can enjoy the benefits of the effort and the fact Japan is the first country outside of the USA to get Look Around and Apple Maps 2.0 improved map data.


Look Around Impressions and Reactions
The Japanese online reaction to Look Around has been largely positive. People seem impressed with the quality, the level of detail and the ease of use compared with Google Maps Japan Street View. The biggest complaints are, ‘I want it in my area too’, a good complaint to have, and ‘this street data is already out of date’, which is not. Things move quickly in Tokyo, the Look Around imagery is from spring~summer 2019 and people already notice the age.

Tokyo in particular has a lot of rebuilding going on in residential areas. I don’t know if this is because of the Olympics or cheap interest rates, but everywhere I see yet another building with scaffolding going up around it for demolition or makeover. Keeping Look Around up to date in Tokyo will be a challenge.

While main streets are covered well, the vast maze of Tokyo side streets have yet to be mapped and pedestrian maps are missing altogether for public areas like parks, shrines and temples all of which Google Street Maps comprehensively covers. Use Look Around on iPhone for a bit and you soon feel the ‘you can’t go there’ haptic feedback bump. Look Around Tokyo is off to a good start but has a long way to go.

And I still see evidence of long standing Apple Maps Japan data problems, in particular the weak Increment P supplied data. Even with all the great new image collection, ground truth checks will be a problem: it can’t be done with AI or from a car, and Increment P simply does’t have the quality manpower to do it.

This is where Zenrin would be a huge help, as they field a ground truth human team with no equal. Having Zenrin on board instead of Increment P would really truly make Apple Maps Japan, the dope choice.


Apple Maps Japan 2.0: New Improved Maps is not new
Apple Maps Japan 2.0 is a tossup. Look Around is off to a good start but limited, and people complain about mislabeled places from poor quality 3rd party data suppliers which drags down Look Around quality. The more you use it the less it looks or feels like a comprehensive update. Justin O’Beirne posted a before and after collection of Apple Maps Japan screen shots.

As a former member of the Apple Maps cartography team, O’Beirne has helpful insights into the differences between the Apple collected and created ‘Improved Map’ cartography 2.0 update rolled out in the USA. His conclusion is that all of the new details are from Japanese map data supplier Increment P (IPC), not Apple image collection vans. This update is not a true Apple Maps 2.0 update. This is correct but not the whole story.

As I have pointed out in many posts over the years, and as an Apple Maps team member admitted to me, there were two basic long standing problems:

  1. Despite being a subsidiary of Pioneer, the P in Increment P, IPC data has never been a strong 1st tier quality map data supplier like Zenrin. Japanese users have complained that IPC takes years to update road and train station information. The further out from metropolitan areas, the weaker IPC map data becomes. This is something Apple can only fix by using a new supplier which they have not done.
  2. Apple only used a subset of IPC map data mixed with OpenStreet map data. For years IPC pushed Apple to integrate all available IPC supplied data more effectively, it seems they finally worked things out and did this.

Apple Maps Japan 2.0 Summary
The Apple Maps Japan update consists of: (1) the Apple created Look Around and, (2) finally incorporates the full set of IPC map data that Apple should have been using all along. Even though the map data and cartography is not Apple collected, they consider this a full blown ‘Improved Map’ update:

iOS 14 Maps ‘New Features’ splash screen

Look Around and a map refresh add up to a big update for Apple Maps Japan but it’s really just a new starting point. Apple image collection vans and walkers can only do so much and are hamstrung by the weak points of the Apple Maps team itself, in particular the poor integration of local data suppliers.

What is Apple aiming for in the long run? To equal or better Google Maps Japan and Yahoo Maps Japan? Or just be a better me-too map? Time will tell but the seven year 2012~2019 run suggests the latter. The Apple Maps Japan makeover challenge is just beginning.