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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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.

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.

Another Google Maps Moat News Cycle

Buckle up map fans, another Google Maps vs. Apple Maps news cycle just arrived. In case you forgot the cycle goes like this:

  • Justin O’Beirne posts a new analysis
  • Tech writers swoon (Gruber following Heer right on cue) but one of them says, “I don’t use Google Maps, Apple Maps works just fine for me.”
  • Overseas commentators clock in saying “that might be true in the USA but Apple Maps suck here in XXX.

OK, after a long hibernation the once and future Apple Maps cartographer head honcho Justin O’Beirne is trolling his former employer again and posted his analysis of the iOS 12 Apple Maps reboot. It is very long so here is a summary:

The Apple Maps team is collecting lots of data all by itself and processing it in India <everybody knew that already>

But

Apple Maps still relies too much on 3rd rate 3rd party data supplies like TomTom, Yelp, Foursquare, etc. <ditto>

And

Apple Maps does a poor job of coordinating, editing and vetting different sets of data. Because of this Apple Maps really sucks at labeling and placing things correctly. <duh and duh>

The most interesting bit is the footnote at the end:Apple's New Map Footnote

O’Beirne knows his tech audience well. His ‘Google is sucking up ever more information and contributors who know how to label things for AR…how will Apple ever compete?’ line of reasoning is calculated to play well with that crowd because nobody will bother asking questions like ‘how will Google vet all those local map contributions’ and assume machine AI algorithms will take care of that along with geopolitics and human mischief. Who vets the vetters and how?

AI technology has its place of course but will never replace human understanding. A small team of smart editors can tie together maps, transit and booking into a handy service. A real team of local knowledgeable talented editors doing more with less is exactly what makes Yahoo Japan Maps a much better product than Google Maps or Apple Maps for Japanese users. Unfortunately this isn’t sexy or interesting to the Western tech crowd because it isn’t technology. So O’Beirne will continue to get the clicks and the praise. To which I can only say, another hit with the tech blogger crowd for Justin O’Beirne…you go Justin O’Beirne! It’s all great fun.

Apple Is Rebuilding Maps From The Ground Up

Apple Map vans coming to Japan was just a small taste of things to come. Matthew Panzarino got the big scoop on the new Apple Maps. In addition to Apple collecting their own map data, cartography is also due for a major makeover.

Instead of doing the “Google Maps is the world standard so screw local cultural conventions” thing, Apple seems to be going out of its way to embrace them:

The maps need to be usable, but they also need to fulfill cognitive goals on cultural levels that go beyond what any given user might know they need. For instance, in the U.S., it is very common to have maps that have a relatively low level of detail even at a medium zoom. In Japan, however, the maps are absolutely packed with details at the same zoom, because that increased information density is what is expected by users.

In Japan Yahoo Japan Maps is the gold standard to beat but it looks like Apple Maps is about to get interesting again.