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

Apple Maps Japan is Dope? Nope

My site doesn’t get many hits from Reddit but I always check new incoming ones just to see what the conversation is. Reddit is a parallel universe. Sometimes it intersects with my reality, most of the time it’s a distant unfathomable body. The latest ripple is about Apple Maps Japan cartography and how dope the detail is compared to the US version.

A closer reading reveals it is not the generic Point of Interest (POI) details so much as the company logo POI used for store chains, convenience stores and such. Those poor Reddit kids don’t know what they’re missing: they don’t have a Japanese App store account and cannot download and use Yahoo Japan Maps which is the real dope. Yahoo Japan Maps smooth clean uncluttered cartography pioneered the company logo POI thing and does it way better than Apple and Google ever will.

A kind note to Reddit map commentators: Apple Maps Japan, especially Apple Maps Japan dark mode, is not dope. It is death by Point of Interest. The same is true for the US version of Apple Maps 2.0. Justin O’Bierne, not my favorite cartographer by a long shot, has a very valuable observation in his review of the Apple Maps 2.0 USA reboot: the new detail is great, but it’s all surface. Dig into the Point of Interest information and it’s the same hot crappy mess of bad unvetted 3rd party data you find in Apple Maps Japan.

Until Apple fixes the POI mess, which Apple could easily do in Japan by hiring Zenrin, Apple Maps 2.0 will just be a pretty postcard with illegible scribbled crap on the back.

iOS 13 Apple Maps Japan: Move along folks there’s nothing to see here yet…

I’ve been wanting to write about iOS 13 Apple Maps Japan since beta 3, but the big marquee features that really matter, New Maps and Look Around, won’t be coming to Japan until very late in the iOS 13 release cycle. They’ll arrive just before the 2020 Tokyo Olympics for which Apple has promised to deliver a good map product. Other major map parts, like the redesigned Nearby and Point of Interest (POI) icons, are not fully deployed for Japan yet, so a review at this point is out of the question.

Fortunately, Ryan Christoffel of MacStories has published a helpful review of iOS 13 Maps USA, where most of the map parts are actually working. Please read his review and I’ll comment on the sections he outlines that make sense to comment on, given the unfinished state of iOS 13 Maps.

New Maps/Look Around
Apple is working hard to deliver these to Japan. I look forward to seeing and reviewing them in 2020. I hope for the best but given Google Maps Japan meltdown experience after dropping JP map supplier Zenrin, I have serious doubts Apple can deliver a consistently good map product that covers all of Japan in detail. We shall see.

Favorites/Collections
Anything would have been an improvement over the iOS 12 style Favorites/Recents list, and iOS 13 Maps is a definite improvement that I look forward to using more. Problems remain however, adding train lines so that transit updates appear in the Maps transit widget are still a complete mess, and favorited stations labels remain too vague to be useful. Which Shinjuku station are we talking about here: JR Shinjuku, Seibu Shinjuku, Keio Shinjuku, Metro Shinjuku, and so on.

Real Time Transit
Google Maps Japan and Yahoo Japan Maps have had this forever, and continue to evolve their features. Apple is just adding this basic service now, almost 3 years after Japan transit arrived in Maps. iOS 13 Maps Japan offers real time transit, while Google Maps Japan offers real time transit, platform numbers and boarding positions. The sad part is that Apple, Google and Yahoo Japan pull data from the same source, but Google and Yahoo Japan make far better use of it with constant incremental upgrades and improvements. And iOS 13 Maps transit widgets remain as useless as always.

The takeaway here is that Apple needs to decouple map service improvements like transit from the annual iOS development cycle. This is killing product evolution.

What’s Missing
Christoffel covers missing pieces that are different from Japan map needs, some of them covered in my WWDC19 wish list: Traffic, Junction View, Share ETA. There are also important things that Chirstoffel doesn’t cover at all: good quality indoor/underground station maps that are critical for Japan and a must have for the Tokyo Olympics.

Dark Mode Apple Maps

iOS 13 Apple Maps Japan: Death by Point of Interest in the dark

Christoffel doesn’t mention dark mode maps at all. On purpose? Smart people like Howard Oakley and Michael Tsai question the current implementation of iOS 13 Dark Mode. From the perspective of the current beta Apple Maps Japan dark mode I can only say this: the Apple designers who think this looks good enough to be useful should be banished to a life where the only map they are allowed to use is dark mode Apple Maps.

Hurry up Apple, Zenrin still talking with Google Maps to supply Japan data

After Google dropped premier Japanese map data supplier Zenrin in March, Google Maps Japan quality took a nose dive as steep as Zenrin’s stock price. Nikkei reports a comment from Zenrin CEO Zenshi Takayama made at the shareholders meeting that the companies are still in discussions but had no specific details to share. It sounds like Google is discovering how much their Japanese map service needs quality Zenrin data to be a viable product.

Apple had better hurry to Zenrin HQ with a pile of cash if they want a chance to beat Google Maps quality is Japan. Apple Image Collection Vans are combing Japan but will never be enough. Google is learning that lesson the hard way.

UPDATE
Related coverage on the WWDC19 Apple Maps Wish List