Sunday, September 30, 2012

Why is the outcry about Apple Maps not bigger?

Apple maps data is far from perfect in the US, and it gets worse out the US (as in data that is obviously over a decade old, misplacing complete towns, and stuff like that).

Worse, it seems that not only the data is bad, the processes to create and manage the data are broken, e.g. it seems to simply match words in the name to define the type of an object. The issue here is not that it turns train stations into parks or invents airfields where there are none, the issue is that these errors are to common and to systematic, which suggests that the data is being generated by a dumb computer.

Additionally, it seems the Maps app does have problem with navigation as in the blue line not managing to connect the green and red pins. Not good.

Now some suggest this is an overreaction as it happened to Antennagate and other Apple problems in the past. They also suggest that if this goes away in 6 months, nobody will much care.

The author compares the wrong "Applegate" with the past, IMHO, the already scratched new iPhones plus the fact that iPhones, at least the black ones, scratch easier than cheap trac phones, and Apple comments only that this is as it should be. This is something that is comparable to Antennagate.

I also strongly believe that Apple Maps will get better, but many issues will be with us when iOS7 is released, and not fixed in six months:

  • The navigation algorithm problem, that problem will probably fixed in short term. It's basically debugging a bug, which as such is hard plan, but it's a thing that you can scale by adding developers to the bug hunt. So expect that one to be fixed with the next minor update.
  • The bad data issue is a bigger problem. As Geodata experts have pointed out, merging geo data from different sources via automatic algorithms does not work. (Basically addresses are not standardized, have fun matching these automatically, my experience in a related field that involved matching products by description suggest that some of these decisions are hard for human experts, so how should a computer manage it?)
    As people have pointed out, a big part of Apple Maps have been human-reviewed first by Apple customers, which is a big red flag for problems, all places need to be reviewed first by humans, ideally humans that happen to have local area knowledge.
    So how big is the issue? Well, Apple has a workforce globally of roughly 20K employees. Google Maps alone has roughly 7K employees over the globe that review and fix data. Building up that kind of workforce is doable, and Apple has the money to do so. But it won't happen in 6 months. Apple's need for review and data is even slightly bigger, as they need to handle search issues too, while for Google this is a core competency. 
So considering, that realistically speaking this will not be fixed short term, the outcry about the downgrading the user experience (because the nicest features are irrelevant in the mapping field, if applied to garbage, and users cannot trust the data) is way to small. I don't see Apple offering any compensation for downgrading a vital functionality of 100+ millions of iDevices.


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