One of the long term challenges with Apple Maps is improving the Point of Interest (POI) content. It’s a problem that remains even as Apple rolls out ‘New Maps’ based on their proprietary collected image data. Justin O’Beirne has covered it from the US angle, I have posted about the messy Japanese POI situation many times. Despite the Apple Maps image collection effort around the globe, the quality of POI content has not improved. It is all over the map compounded by the inability of the Apple Maps system to filter and intelligently juggle multiple POI sources. Apple is stuck with 3rd party POI content from Yelp, Foursquare, TripAdvisor, Tabelog and countless others that Apple doesn’t ‘own’: they don’t collect it, they don’t edit it. Until now.
Today Apple rolled out Apple Business Connect. Eddie Cue:“We created Business Connect to provide Apple users around the world with the most accurate information for places to eat, shop, travel, and more.” Whew, good thing because people who use Apple Maps always complain about Yelp: the content is out of date, ancient reviews don’t reflect reality, or worse, the reviews are gamed by bots, hacks or ‘kakikomi butai’ (post entry battalions) in China or North Korea.
Don’t laugh, a Japanese Korean friend once told me about the computer class curriculum at his Korean school in Japan. The teacher would announce the class assignment of the day: writing and posting glowing product reviews of Korean products on various review sites. The old Unification Church in Japan was notorious for employing a virtual ‘post to order’ kakikomi butai operation that paid by the character. This is why I never believe in crowdsourced anything. To me it’s mostly fake or manipulated, with little oversight by stupidity or design. Most Americans seem to believe in it still but crowdsourced content is risky and trouble prone: Yelp and even Tabelog have had to address periodic content scandals online and in court.
So Apple is taking charge of its own POI content. Over the past year Apple Maps has rolled out POI ratings and picture uploads linked the user Apple ID, wisely omitting reviews and limited to places to eat and drink, places to shop and places to stay. So Apple now controls both the POI upload content pipeline and the ratings pipeline. The biggest challenge will be how well Apple manages the POI content swap out process. Is 3rd party POI content automatically swapped out when Business Connect POI is uploaded and Apple verified? More importantly, how exactly does Apple verify Business Connect content? There certainly isn’t an Apple army of ground truth experts roaming around. The proof will be in the content verification and management, and will take time to find out the results. There is also the Eddie Cue mentioned ‘places to travel and more’ stuff that isn’t addressed by Apple Business Connect. We’ll find out about that in time as well I guess, but at least the Apple Maps team finally has a game plan to solve their POI content problems.
In 2018 Eddie Cue said, “We have been working on trying to create what we hope is going to be the best map app in the world, taking it to the next step. That is building all of our own map data from the ground up.” After 10 years of Apple Maps, 7 years of rebuilding it and 3 years after the all-new map launch…are we there yet?
As I said last year, reviewing Apple Maps is impossible because it’s a very different service in different regions, with Japan an outliner in many ways. All that follows is from a Japanese market perspective that does not apply to using Apple Maps in other places.
If there is one Apple Maps take away from WWDC22 it was the focus on Apple Maps services and leveraging Apple created, Apple proprietary Look Around and detailed 3D city experience in developer apps. For developers using MapKit there is a lot of new stuff to access all new map details. They have access to the entire Apple Maps stack and can incorporate Look Around and the detailed 3D city experience in their apps.
Apple also has a new web service called Apple Maps Server that allows 3rd party app backends to do georelated searches directly with the Apple Maps Server which promises to increase performance instead of wasting mobile bandwidth and battery. It seems like a small step but I’m intrigued if Apple has bigger Apple Maps Server plans later on. Also this:
Old is New What’s on the slate for the iOS 16 Maps app? With the focus on services i.e. features Apple can add without a new app, not much. We have a refreshed Maps UI that adds multi-stop routing with much better start point~destination point selectors, and condenses various route and guidance options into a single slide-able menu selection row.
For some bewildering reason Apple touts transit cards and fares in Maps as new. They are not. The features have been there since the October 2016 iOS 10.1 Apple Pay Suica launch update, they also come with the same old limitations in iOS 16, like ignoring your transit cards installed on Apple Watch. And it won’t work with transit cards that don’t support Wallet recharge, like Ventra and HOP. Apple is either hard up for showcasing new Maps features or it counts as new because it is new for America.
In field tests there are some nice new little touches. Walking directions now include elevation information, Point of Interest (POI) cards are better arranged, Siri suggestions seems a little more with it (the new high quality Japanese voices are nice too).
I was hoping for some tweaks to transit directions with better transfer and final destination notifications but there is no apparent change from iOS 15, and transit directions remain hopelessly lost on subway routes. No changes either for Japanese cartography and Japan focused Guides remain English language only.
In sum it will be a quiet Apple Maps year for Japanese users. The iOS 16 UI tweaks are nice to have, Look Around will get the new extensions currently being mapped (minus private roads), maybe Real-Time Transit will get real. Definitely no new maps for Japan and the big indoor station mapping effort remains a mystery. Perhaps we’ll find out what Apple is up on that front at WWDC23, but that’s another story for another time.
Any WWDC OS announcement is always a matchup contest of what’s coming for America and what’s missing in other regions like Japan. Let’s take a quick look at what’s coming, what’s not and other quirks on the iOS 16 feature page.
Live Text that actually works for Japanese
Japan finally got Live Text and Visual Lookup. While it’s great that Live Text supports Japanese language, it doesn’t support vertical Japanese text which means there are lots of times when it won’t work. Basically Live Text Japanese is pretty useless without robust vertical text support. And yes it’s depressing to think that iOS and macOS in 2022 still cannot do precise multilingual vertical text selection that QuickDraw GX could do back in 1993.
It’s weird that Apple is advertising transit cards and low fare balance warnings as a new Maps feature. I guess it’s new when it’s new for America. Apple Maps has had low fare warnings for Suica since the October 2016 iOS 10.1 update. The add new card part is new either but low fare warnings aren’t working in beta 1. Bottom line: there is no new transit functionality such as granular route selection, sorting etc., thought the UI is improved and more compact. Walking directions have also added elevation information. As Japan is missing from the WWDC22 announced list of countries getting New Maps this year (countries like Saudi Arabia that have yet to see an Apple Maps Image Collection van), Japan will continue to be the Apple Maps challenged country. I’m pretty sure Taiwan will get New Maps long before Japan does, if ever.
Apple Pay and Wallet
Apple Pay Later is only for America at this point, ditto for ID in Wallet, both missing and no surprise. Order tracking in Wallet is listed for Japan and also key sharing, though BMW is currently the only company offering a digital key for Wallet. Wallet compatible Home-Office-Hotel digital keys have yet to be announced though there are many digital keys on the market for Android.
Live Captions, Control Apple Watch with iPhone, Apple News, Weather app minute by minute precipitation are missing. Siri Japanese voice 1, the guy voice, and voice 2 are new and higher quality. Voice 1 sounds more soft and fey to my ear. That’s okay but the previous guy voice was a bit easier to hear outside with ambient noise.
Now that new maps for France and New Zealand are in final public testing and almost certainly to be mentioned at WWDC22, there is speculation that Japan is next in line for Apple’s “built from the ground up” new map.
In my opinion, we must not forget Japan. Moreover, I find it difficult to understand the situation in this country. Certainly, Apple has updated this country with very accurate third-party data but it remains a very important country for Apple and still does not have the new map data. So, my list of countries will be Japan, the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg and Switzerland, Austria, Liechtenstein or Sweden.
This suggests that Apple’s expansions over the next couple of years are likeliest to include Austria, France, Germany, Japan, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Singapore, Sweden, Switzerland, Taiwan, and smaller countries immediately neighboring them.
With Germany, Singapore, France and New Zealand out of the way is Japan really next in line? Based on Apple’s image collection effort in Japan so far the short answer is no, maybe never…at the current pace. Indeed the situation is difficult to understand.
Image collection in Japan kicked off seriously in April 2019 with the big 1st wave covering cities in the Kanto region (Tokyo, Kanagawa, Chiba, Saitama, Ibaraki) Nagoya region (Nagoya City with a tiny bit of Mie prefecture) and the Kansai region (Osaka, Kyoto, Nara, Hyogo, Shiga). Mapped cities are listed in the screenshots below. These were the regions of the Look Around Japan launch on August 5, 2020 JST.
At the time Apple Maps showed a splash screen announcing new features for Japan: Look Around, Improved Map, Landmarks
Indeed the cartography was improved, especially in park areas that finally showed paths and other details instead of big green shapes. However, as Justin O’Beirne pointed out, improved map for Japan was only improved cartography of Apple’s primary map data provider Increment P (IPC), not Apple’s new map (confirmed at WWDC21). Apple was doing a better job with IPC Map Fan data but why did they put so much effort into a short term solution? The answer: the 2020 Tokyo Olympics that were originally scheduled July 25~August 9 before COVID hit.
People outside of Japan think Apple’s 3rd party map data for Japan is “very accurate”, but Japanese do not and neither do I. IPC was sold by Pioneer to a hedge fund in 2021. They changed the company name to GeoTechnologies, stuffed the board with cushy director positions and now market the awful click-bait for points Torima app. The focus of the company is leveraging assets not building them.
The hallmark of GeoTechnologies map data is the blocky ‘swiss cheese’ look of rural areas and the sloppy mismatched cartography of areas mapped at different intervals badly spliced together. Rivers disappear and reappear, wide roads suddenly become goat paths then roads again, half towns disappear along a mapped region ‘fault lines’. Many problems, never fixed.
Nevertheless the Apple image collection beat goes on with annual mapping sweeps, all for Look Around, now also for AR walking guidance. The 2020 run mapped extensions for Hiroshima, Sendai, Takamatsu and Fukuoka cities, the 2021 run mapped the just released exertions for Sapporo, Niigata, Shizuoka and Akashi cities. The 2022 run is the most extensive yet, half refresh of 2019 mapped areas and half new with Okayama, Kita-Kyushu and Kumamoto cities being mapped for the very first time. Unlike the early runs, the later mapping runs are covering entire listed cites instead of limited central areas.
By the end of 2022 Apple will have completely mapped 5 prefectures: Osaka, Chiba, Shizuoka, Kyoto, Kanagawa, and Tokyo Metropolis. It’s very odd that Apple is mapping huge swathes of rural Shizuoka ahead of important population areas like greater Nagoya. I lived in the central Shizuoka region for 10 years and cycled everywhere. The Shizuoka mapping priority to cover so much rural area doesn’t make sense. Whatever the reasons, we have 6 prefectures in 4 years…1.5 prefectures a year with 41 prefectures to go. That means Japan will be completed mapped and ready for new map in 2049.
In other words, unless things change in a big way, Japan will remain the Apple Maps outliner it is now and new map will remain elusive as Apple’s map label for the Sea of Japan.
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) Basic Directions: driving, transit, bike, walking, (2) Search: pre-canned Nearby, Point of Interest, etc., (3) Two different versions of Look Around, (4) Guides, (5) Last but not least: 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. Apple uses many different local data suppliers of varying quality to deliver most map services for each country. Regions outside of major metropolitan areas only have a small sub-set of those services.
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:
Extremely uneven quality from various Point of Interest (POI) data suppliers
Poor vetting and coordination of 3rd party supplied data on the Apple Maps system side (duplicates, missing localization, etc.) with no viable way to report many kinds of errors.
Poor Japanese typography, specifically unfamiliarity with or unwillingness to accommodate and optimize non-roman character sets like Kanji that have special rules and needs for legible display.
No real-time transit schedule data integration, weak rural area transit direction support
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. Transit directions are the only nationwide available feature beyond fundamental drive and walking directions.
iOS 15 New Cartography All countries, more or less, get the Apple Maps ‘new look’ cartography (but not the ‘New Maps’ Apple collected data) which everybody seems to either love or hate neatly summed up in the above Twitter timeline screenshot. O’Beirne never delivered his long promised, repeatedly postponed iOS 15 cartography review opus. This limited overview will have to do.
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 En-route disembark notifications are finally here but in my extensive testing, I found the design strangely inconsistent and disembark notifications unreliable. 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 Japan and Yahoo Japan Maps 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.
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 incorporate POI information and some don’t. Tokyo and other major cities change quickly but the image collection effort remains very limited compared to America, Europe and Australia, Look Around isn’t keeping up, expansion is extremely slow. Guides remain an English only option, Indoor maps don’t include stations…and so it goes.
Compare that to the success of the highly focused Apple Pay Japan, a product that changed the Japanese payments landscape. Jennifer Bailey’s team built a very strong foundation and improved it from there. Instead of spreading themselves thin, Apple would do better to put new features on hold and focus on the basic foundation. Because until that happens, Apple Maps Japan, a product that refuses to name the Sea of Japan, is going nowhere.