Apple Maps Japan Reboot Challenge: Real Progress

Now that Apple Maps image collection white Subaru vans are out and about in force with lots of people tweeting about it, it looks like Apple Maps has finally gotten serious about mapping Japan. We hope. I see 3 basic challenges:

Collect Quality Data
This is obvious and the whole point of Apple Maps image collection vans, but it’s not the whole story. Apple cannot do it all and has to rely on quality map data suppliers. Increment P (IPC) supplies Japanese map data to Apple but they are not the best quality provider and seem to collect and package other data sources rather than getting their own. Case in point, it took IPC 2 years to fix the Great Shinbu Hot Spring Data Cutoff. If Apple wants to go toe to toe with Google Maps in Japan, they should sign Zenrin who are the top map data provider for Japan. Google recently dropped Zenrin and Google Maps Japan has been a disaster ever since.

Process Quality Data
This has been the bane of Apple Maps since day one. I see it as Apple’s biggest challenge: if Apple cannot quickly and intelligently process map data from multiple sources, the best quality data collection effort, along with the data, is completely wasted. Let’s take a look at how well Apple processes IPC map data for the Ikegami Hall area and compare it to Yahoo Japan Maps and Google Maps.

Ikegami Hall

As you can see from the example, Apple isn’t using much of the IPC map detail available to them, including Ikegami Hall. Maybe somebody at the Apple Maps data processing center in India forgot to put it in, or is waiting for an update from an Apple Maps van. Either way, the Apple Maps team has no idea something important is missing and that in itself is a big problem.

Present Quality Data
In short, cartography. Good cartography doesn’t only make maps look good, it directs your attention to what is important to know, filters out extraneous detail so you can find what you are looking for, while showing how to get there quickly. Yahoo Japan Maps has the best cartography by far, Google Maps runs a distant 2nd place. However both of them constantly tweak their cartography and evolve it. Apple Maps has yet to substantially update their Justin O’Beirne 2012 era cartography and they desperately need to. Take a look at the Gotanda station area of Tokyo comparing the default views of Apple Maps, Google Maps and Yahoo Japan Maps. The quality improves going left to right.

Apple Maps cartography overwhelms the screen with information that doesn’t need to be there. Yahoo Japan Maps is super clean, smartly edited and easy to navigate. The captions explain it all, case closed.

The challenges facing the Apple Maps team in Japan are many. Now that Google has stumbled, Apple has a golden opportunity to create a better map service for Japan and change the market perception of it. I wish them good luck and look forward to seeing what progress they make.

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Apple Maps Expands Japan Image Collection Effort

After a small start in 2018 limited to parts of Tokyo and Chiba, Apple has greatly expanded their map data image collection efforts in Japan. It’s a much more ramped up and detailed data sweep covering both major metropolitan and surrounding rural areas in Honshu. Areas on target for image collection from April to October this year include: Greater Kanto (Tokyo, Chiba, Saitama, Ibaragi, Kanagawa), Greater Tokai (Aichi/Nagoya, Mie) and Greater Kansai (Kyoto, Shiga, Osaka, Hyogo, Nara). It’s a lot of ground to cover in 6 months and I hope the Apple Maps team can keep this level of commitment for mapping the rest of Japan.

The Apple Maps reboot has yet to make any difference in Japan, even with the recent addition of indoor maps, but Apple does have a chance now that Google Maps has stumbled badly here since dropping top Japanese map supplier Zenrin. More image collection is a good start but will never be enough. I have said it before and say it again, Apple cannot up their Japan product with current 3rd rate map supplier Increment P, they need to sign Zenrin. Nobody’s artificial intelligence algorithms, not Google’s and certainly not Apple’s, can match the quality of 1,000 Zenrin ground checkers.

Google Maps experiences a Apple Maps meltdown in Japan

Early this month Google Japan announced new features for Japanese users that would include better map data and easier navigation. Instead of “in 100 meters turn left”, Google Maps now says “turn left at the 7-Eleven.” The rollout however is not going very well and is surprisingly similar to the previous Google Maps meltdown in 2015 when anybody could edit map data directly.

This past week map otaku complained on Twitter that Google had dumped premier Japanese digital map data supplier Zenrin for in-house data and weird things were happening. Japanese Twitter is now full of screenshots of parking lots transformed into roads, mountains into lakes and railroad lines suddenly gone missing. It’s like zooming back to the 2012 Apple Maps launch with underwater subway stations in Yotsuya Tokyo or the infamous Gundam Pachinko JR train station. Things came to a head when Zenrin’s stock price crashed today based on speculation that Google had dumped them, though neither company commented. Bloomberg ran the story in Japanese and English, which is unusual, and local IT press coverage has been brutal.

I have seen the Google mapping van and the Google mapping backpacker in the neighborhood occasionally, but one problem seems to be that Google replaced Zenrin data, which has a large field verification team behind it, with in-house map data automatically extracted from satellite images.

I’m sure Google will fix most things, eventually, but there is a growing consensus that Zenrin quality cannot be replaced with in-house AI created data and Google Maps in Japan is destined to become an also-ran service like Apple Maps. Time will tell, but taken together with the recent claims of a growing reverse vishing problem in Asia, the Google Maps reputation in Japan is taking a big hit.

If Apple were smart they would use the opportunity to sign Zenrin and finally get their hands on top rate Japanese map data instead of the 3rd rate Increment P. Until then stick with Yahoo Japan Maps who not only has the superior Zenrin map data but the best cartography too, which they constantly tweak and improve. Take a quick look of the same Shinjuku area in Apple Maps, Google Maps and Yahoo Japan Maps and see how many train and subway stations you can easily pick out of the stew at a glance. Yahoo Japan Maps wins every time.

Google Maps Peeing Again? Reverse Vishing attacks reported in Asia

Google Maps is reportedly experiencing another security problem somewhat similar to the 2015 Map Maker debacle that allowed spammers, hackers and other merry makers to directly edit and wreak havoc with map information. The peer reviewed Local Guides program was eventually implemented as a replacement to improve local map information. However the current Google Maps does allow anonymous users to “suggest an edit” such as local business telephone numbers and this appears to be a security weakness and attack vector.

The Daily, a web site for the Daily Sports, not exactly a tech blog, reports that ‘reverse vishing’, is a problem for Google Maps in India and is spreading in Asia. Voice phishing, also called vishing, is when fraudsters call potential victims, reverse vishing is when the potential victim calls a fake number from a fraudster. The article describes frausters editing business information in Google Maps and supplying fake business numbers for banks and other lucrative targets. People calling the fake business numbers are subject to identity theft.

The article doesn’t offer direct evidence or go into extensive detail, such as why Google currently allows anonymous edit suggestions or how suggestions are vetted, but apparently the issue is real and sounds plausible if edit suggestions are not rigorously checked. The article concludes that Google needs to tighten security so that important business information cannot be changed without proper verification. The only work around is confirming contact information directly on a business web site.

Update: added links, screenshots with edits for clarity


Why Apple Pay Suica is a success and Apple Maps is not

Inbound Apple Pay Suica user experiences are endlessly fascinating and occasionally enlightening. This tweet video captures the usual ‘whoa, that’s fast’ first time reaction.

The responses are equally interesting with a few ‘so what? we have that in (London, Moscow, China, etc.)’ which is true but it’s not the same. Almost all of them are slower, don’t have e-money functions, don’t have nationwide coverage and are not hosted natively on pay platforms like Apple Pay or Google Pay. They rely on slow buggy EMV contactless credit card transactions on transit gates instead, in short they are not transit payment platforms.

Apple Pay Suica is clearly a great service and success that has not only changed contactless payments in Japan but changed Apple as well, with Apple incorporating global FeliCa and implementing A-12 Bionic powered Express Card with power reserve technology which matches the performance of dedicated Sony FeliCa Chips on the A-Series.

What makes Apple Pay Suica a success? It is a unique layering of hardware and software that tightly integrates into a single seamless experience. At the core is the basic Suica IC card format and the transit gate system technology was created by JR East and Sony in the 1980s to solve a user experience problem with magnetic commuter pass cards. Successive layers were added over time: e-money, nationwide Transit IC card interoperability, and perhaps most important of all, Mobile Suica. The Super Suica additions will further enhance the fundamental technology in 2021.

Apple Pay support arrived in October 2016, global FeliCa was added in 2017. These were 2 layers from Apple that fit perfectly and extended the entire platform with a whole new ease of use service level. The result is a service where each layer builds on and enhances the whole. This is Steve Jobs 101: work from the user experience back to the technology so that the total experience is greater than the sum of the parts.

The Apple Maps problem
Contrast this with Apple Maps. Justin O’Beirne recently published a detailed progress report of Apple’s ‘new’ (in America only) map. There was surprisingly little discussion on tech blog sites, Nick Heer was one of the few to share a few observations. O’Beirne and Heer both focus on data collection and prioritization as the core problem for Apple to fix if Apple is ever going to close the map gap with Google. I think that is a misconception that got Apple Maps in trouble in the first place.

I’ve never seen data collection as the biggest problem that Apple needs to fix. In Japan for example the data collection problem can be solved quickly by swapping out 3rd rate data suppliers with first tier JP suppliers like Zenrin who already field large data collection and verification teams. Google and Yahoo Maps Japan both use Zenrin and build on top of that solid foundation with their own data.

Integration and coordination have been, and continue to be the biggest problem. If Apple cannot do a good job integrating and coordinating different map service layers so that they build on each other, it will continue to be what it is now: a collection of loosely connected technology services that don’t work together very well and tend to pull each other down instead of up. A few examples:

  • Transit
    Apple has a very good Japanese transit data supplier Jourdan, the same one Google uses. Unfortunately the good transit data gets wasted by the limited search and sort App Maps transit UI that is completely manual, doesn’t dynamically update travel times or arrival estimates, or even provide location-based alerts when you arrive. Those kinds of integrated transit notifications on Apple Watch alone would sell a lot more devices.
  • Siri
    Siri is one the most important service layers for integrating navigation, transit and indoor maps. Unfortunately Siri is poorly connected where it should be hooked into every nook and cranny. Japanese Siri can locate the nearest station, usually, but that’s it. Siri doesn’t do transit searches or suggestions.
  • Navigation
    Turn by turn has been offered in Japan for a few years but it still basically useless without traffic information, which is still missing. Lane Guidance was only added just recently.
  • Data Duplication
    This happens all the time as Apple fails at coordinating and verifying data sets from different JP suppliers.

And so on. I included data duplication as it illustrates my basic point that no matter how good the basic data collection is, it’s worthless without a robust integration and coordination process. A smart team of human editors with deep local knowledge understand how services should connect, what works and how it should work. A truly  great team also knows how to focus and do more, much more, with less. This is impossible to achieve with the current one size fits all mentality.

Apple Maps Japan is a classic ‘the total is less than the sum of its parts‘ product. To be sure there are some good parts, but in Japan they don’t add up. The different layers stay separate and never integrate into a seamless whole like Apple Pay Suica does. It’s great that Apple is making process with its map reboot effort in America but the real test will be how well they integrate it all. A laser focus and smart integration is the only way Apple can close the map gap with Google.