They Don’t Love You Like Google Loves You

Maps in iOS 6 bring about the downfall of western civilization, and my disillusionment with tech commentary continues.

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Just days after the entire developed world sank into a depressive ennui due to Apple’s boring new smart phone, society was rocked to its foundations by the unmitigated disaster that is iOS 6’s new Google-free Maps app. Drivers unwittingly plunged their cars into the sea. Planes over Ireland crashed into nearby farms due to mislabeled icons. College students, long dependent on their iPhones to find their way around campus from day to day, were faced with a featureless blob of unlabeled buildings and had no option but to lie down on the grass and sob. Huge swaths of Scotland were covered with an impenetrable fog, and the Brooklyn Bridge collapsed.

Throughout the entire ordeal, Tim Cook only stopped giving the world the middle finger long enough to go on Saturday Night Live and rip up a picture of Steve Jobs. Jobs’s only recourse was to haunt the homes and workplaces of thousands of bloggers, commenters, and Twitter users, moaning “You’re the only one who truly understands what I wanted. Avenge me!

At least, that’s the way I heard it. You want proof? It’s right there in the video, the one where they say “The Statue of Liberty? Gone!” while showing a picture of the Statue of Liberty. (Psst… hey, The Verge people — it’s that green thing in the middle of that star-shaped island). You think just because it’s “journalism” they have to have sources to show that it’s a serious, widespread problem? Check it, Jack: a tumblr full of wacky Apple maps mishaps.

And no, it doesn’t matter that the vast majority of those are complaints about the 3D Flyover feature, which was universally acknowledged as being a “neat but practically useless” feature of the maps app as soon as it was released, because shut up that’s why.

Of course, since I’m a relentless Apple apologist, I’m focused, Zapruder-like, on one tiny six-second segment of that three-minute long video: the part that says “For walking and driving, the app is pretty problem free.” And I’m completely ignoring the bulk of the video, which shows incontrovertible evidence that not everything is 3D modeled and lots of things end up looking kind of wavy.

Sarcasm (mostly) aside, my problem with this isn’t “oh no, people are picking on Apple!” My problem is that the people who are supposed to be authorities on tech — and to be clear, it’s not just The Verge, by a long shot — keep spinning the most shallow observations into sweeping, over-arching narratives. (And no, I haven’t see a single Verge post about Apple in the past week that’s neglected to find a way to link to that 73-degrees-Apple-is-timid post).

The tech journalists are the ones who are shaping public opinion, so I don’t think it’s unreasonable to expect an attention span of longer than a week and a short term memory of longer than a year. And as a result, I’m going to hold them responsible every time I read something dumb on the internet.

To be fair, even though the video just says “Apple’s supposedly been working on its version of Maps for 5 years, and it’s resulted in an app that’s inferior to what was there before,” and leaves it at that, the article does mention that Google’s data has been public for 7 years. And points out that the data gets refined with the help of location data from millions of iPhones and Android devices.

But why make it sound as if the decision to break free from dependence on Google was an arbitrary decision on Apple’s part? By all accounts, Jobs had a preternatural grudge against Google for releasing Android. But it’s not as if the Maps app on iOS 5 and earlier was feature equivalent to the Google maps on Android, and Apple’s deciding to roll their own was a completely petty and spiteful decision. Android’s had turn-by-turn directions for a while now, and there were no signs that it was ever coming to the Google-driven app on iOS.

Was that a case of Google holding out, or Apple not bothering with it because they knew they had their own version in the works? I certainly don’t know — it’s the kind of thing it’d be neat for actual tech journalists to explain — but it ultimately doesn’t matter. The licensing deal with Google ran out, so Apple’s options were to reassert their dependency on their largest competitor, or to launch with what they had.

And incidentally, whenever someone says “Steve Jobs would never have allowed something this half-assed to be released!” it’s the tech journalists’ responsibility to remind them that the iPhone released without an SDK and nothing but Apple’s assurance that Web apps were The Future. Or that Jobs had no problem releasing the original iPhone without support for Flash video, even though there was an outcry that Flash was crucial to the user experience.

I installed iOS 6 on the iPad and tried out a few practical searches. It found everything I needed, and it actually gave me more relevant information than I remember the Google version giving me, since I was looking for businesses, and Yelp automatically came up with business hours. Of course, my experience means very little, since I happen to live in the one part of the world that’s going to be most aggressively tested by Silicon Valley companies. I have little doubt that Europe and Asia are going to have a harder time of it, and obviously they’re not markets to be ignored. But it’s not a one-size-fits-all problem, so it’s silly to treat it like one.

Apple has no problem calling Siri a beta, so they probably should’ve called Maps beta as well. It’s a huge part of why people use smart phones, so it’d be foolish to imply that serious inaccuracies are no big deal. Regardless, it’ll work well enough in a lot of cases for most Americans, and in the cases where it doesn’t work, the web version of Google maps is still available (and you can set up a link on the home page with its own icon, even). Maybe Google and Apple will reach enough of a détente for a third party Google Maps app to get released. Maybe it’ll even finally bring turn-by-turn directions, or Apple will even allow third party apps to be default handlers for links!

Until then, maybe we can stop with the melodrama and the hyperbole, and just appreciate Apple Maps as version 1.0 mapping software with a neat extra feature of peeking into an alternate reality where Japantown in San Francisco has been overtaken by giant spiders.

2 thoughts on “They Don’t Love You Like Google Loves You”

  1. Of the complaints, I think there are three real problems:
    1. Searches don’t seem to be location aware
    2. Stores are frequently in the wrong place
    3. International data is seriously lacking

    These are pretty significant issues, particularly the second. If I’m looking for directions to a place and it gives me directions only to have the actual location be several blocks away or worse, that’s pretty serious. If you just don’t have data, fine I can load up safari and find it myself. Like you say, they would have been much better off calling it beta and stripping out the features that weren’t ready for primetime.

  2. International data: without question.

    Location-aware searches: I’ve seen several mentions of a search for Lexington Ave in Manhattan returning the address in Brooklyn. But I’ve never had Google maps work consistently with this kind of thing, either. I always have to specify “San Francisco,” even when I’m standing in San Francisco, for it to return an address that’s not in the east bay. And I read a CNET article yesterday where the testers found it “shocking” that they couldn’t type random phrases into Apple’s maps — like “crooked street” for Lombard — and have it come up with a usable result. But who actually does that?

    Stores in the wrong place: Here’s where all the “look at the silly 3D flyover pictures!!” just add noise. There’s no way to tell how widespread a problem this is without reporting it. And presumably, stores are going to report it to Apple if they’re not listed. From my experience — which again, isn’t worth much, since I’m living in the sweet spot for this kind of thing — it’s come up with more options than Google maps did.

    And I totally forgot to mention the lack of transit directions. Which is a big deal, except — again, here in SF — nobody relies on Google for transit directions anyway, since they’re not as accurate as NextBus or third-party apps. In theory it’s good for the developers of transit apps, but at the moment it’s a drag for users because it’s not nearly as convenient.

    Ultimately what I’m saying is that they had an untenable situation — let Google continue to have a monopoly on mapping data, or try to introduce an alternative — and they went with something that works a majority of the time for a large part of their audience (only in the US or major cities in Europe) and has one clear improvement in the form of turn-by-turn directions. But to hear the tech sites describe it, it’s a comically disastrous failure that doesn’t work for anyone, simply driven by a petty decision on Apple’s part. I’d just want to hear a more accurate account of what’s really going on.

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