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

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.

ETC 2.0 RSA Security Update

Twitter user shao posted an interesting series of tweets relating to RSA security and ETC 2.0.

In case you didn’t notice, or don’t drive much, the wireless Japanese Electronic Toll Collection (ETC) system has gotten a big upgrade to ETC 2.0 these past few years. The enhanced ITS SPOT antenna network using DSRC (Dedicated short-range communications) 5.8GHz band for ETC 2.0 duplex communication has been in place on the ground since 2011 but it wasn’t until 2015 when ETC 2.0 ready car navigation systems began delivering ETC 2.0 services to drivers. Unfortunately ETC 2.0 still only represents 25% of the user base though ETC 2.0 navigation systems are due to be ‘standard equipment’ from the 2021 car model year.

Shao pointed out that ETC 2.0 got a security update in 2018 with older less secure ETC 2.0 card readers ‘good until 2030’ unless a security threat forces a quicker update. Unfortunately it is not easy to tell the difference between newer devices with the security update and older potentially less secure devices. He also notes that Suica uses RSA which is another good reason for JR East to upgrade everything to the newer more secure FeliCa OS version based Super Suica format. With all that hardware out there that can’t be upgraded sometimes you have to pull the trigger and pull the plug on compatibility in favor of the new.

ETC 2.0 readers on the left have the latest RSA security enhancements and are hard to tell apart from older less secure units

One central ETC 2.0 feature is the ability to connect with smartphones and deliver much more detailed traffic and road information but so far there are very few options out there. The only stand alone unit I could find was the Denso ETC 2.0 reader + Android App product that went off the market in 2020 with no replacement. ETC 2.0 integration for Google Maps and Apple Maps would be great to have but looks unlikely. Dedicated car navi systems are the best, and only, way to enjoy the benefits of enhanced ETC 2.0 content.

Google Maps ‘Real-Time’ Crowdedness Caveats: wherever data is available

Google Maps Japan has offered crowdedness transit information since June. The latest app version is expanding this feature:

If you need to take transit, Google Maps can help you more easily social distance with live crowdedness information. On Android and iOS globally, you’ll start seeing how crowded your bus, train, or subway line is right now based on real-time feedback from Google Maps users around the world (wherever data is available).

Google Maps updates to get you through the holidays

Crowdedness is missing altogether in Apple Maps Japan transit, not surprising as Apple is very slow adding new features and transit only just got around to adding train platform numbers. Google Maps crowdedness information is a welcome feature but be wary about the ‘real-time’ label with the ‘wherever data is available’ sticker.

As the announcement explains, crowdedness data is ‘real-time feedback’. In Japan the feedback is solicited in the app: ‘how crowded is your train’. This is a completely subjective observation and depends on whatever the person making said feedback thinks and feels. Manual feedback may not the only measure, but it is time and train specific beyond the capability of GPS and carries the most weight.

JR East provides crowdedness information collected from train and station cameras that they plug into the JR East app. They also supply this to Google Maps, Yahoo Japan Maps and other map services. Detail level depends on the line: Yamanote line train cameras and sensors provide car by car crowdedness and much more while Chuo line trains sensors only summarize the entire train.

The gap between Google Map feedback and JR East crowdedness data sets can be seen in Google Maps transit directions. JR East supplied data is highlighted in red text labeled ‘live’, Google feedback data is not. In the above screenshot Google Maps feedback lists the Yamanote train as crowded, JR East data does not. The take away: use transit agency data when available, after a few months of using it I find Google Maps feedback crowdedness data is, at best, subjective.

Yahoo Japan Maps Updates Cartography

Yahoo Japan Maps has the best cartography in Japan in comparison with Apple and Google and remains the local leader. They are the only major map that gets notoriously difficult map places like Shinjuku station just right for road and rail navigation. No fuss, no layer on/off nonsense. And they keep improving things like the latest cartography tweaks. Compare today’s Shinjuku station screenshots at the same zoom level and see for yourself: