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.
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 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