or to pick a better route on your own. You can tap an Overview
button for that kind of map, but it requires flipping between two
As the magnitude of Mapplegate, as one of my readers called it, became more clear, I had three questions.
First, why did Apple jettison Google's map service, which is polished and mature? Second, how did Apple and its elite squad of perfectionists misfire so badly? Third, what, exactly, is the underlying problem and how long will it take to fix?
Here is what I learned. First, why Apple dropped the old version: The company says that Google was saving all the best features for phones that run on its Android operating system. For example, the iPhone app still did not have spoken directions or vector maps (smooth lines, not tiles of pixels), long after those features had come to Android phones.
Then there was the issue of data. Every time you use Google Maps from a smartphone, you send data from your phone to Google. That information -- how you are using maps, where you are going, which roads actually exist -- is extremely valuable; it can be used to improve the maps but also to improve Google's ability to deliver location-based offers and advertising.
Apple had been trying to disentangle itself from Google. (It also eliminated the YouTube app from iOS 6, though Google quickly released a free downloadable app for those still wishing to watch videos on YouTube.) Apple was no longer interested in supplying so much valuable user data to its rival and decided to build a replacement maps app.
To do so, Apple licensed data from other companies. It bought map data from TomTom, which also supplies maps for BlackBerry, HTC and Samsung phones, and even for parts of Google Maps. Apple got restaurant and store listings from Yelp, traffic data from Waze, and so on -- more than two dozen sources in all, Apple says.
The resulting ocean of information adds up to many petabytes of data (one petabyte is a million gigabytes). More than 99 percent of the information is accurate, Apple says.
Unfortunately, when the overall data set is that huge, even half a percent of wrong information can mean a lot of glitches. And the trouble is, you never know when you are going to encounter one. After one wild goose chase, it could be hard to trust the software again.
It would seem that Apple wrote a beautiful, well-designed app and then fed it questionable data. It is as if you got a $1,500 coffee maker and then poured moldy beans into it.
So where does that leave things? Given that the data are all online, Apple can roll out fixes as they become available, but "it's not going to change by Friday," said a product manager at the company. That is because, for the most part, the fixes have to be made one at a time, by hand.
Within the app, the prominent "Report a Problem" button offers one-tap options like "Pin is at incorrect location" and "Place does not exist." Apple also learns from the location data pouring in from millions of iPhones.
Apple then passes the error reports to TomTom or whichever data vendor is responsible. Eventually, the vendor makes the correction, and the Maps app can get better.
Let's not forget that Google's maps were pretty poor when they started out, in 2005. And Apple acknowledges the problems with its new app. "We own this; we manage the vendors," a representative of the company said. "This is no one's issue but ours." The company has vowed to put as much time and staffing into repairing Maps as required. Unfortunately, making the app reliable and complete will take a very long time.
In the meantime, while Apple's gaffe might provide good entertainment, there are plenty of alternatives for maps.
You can still use Google Maps, but on the Web. Visit maps.google.com from your smartphone browser and accept the offer to create a home-screen icon. This will not include spoken directions but will give you written directions, public transportation details, live traffic reports and, of course, Google's far superior maps and data. And you can install the Google+ Local app for full access to Google's more complete database of shops and businesses.
You can also use an app from another company. Many of the good apps come with a fee, but the MapQuest and Waze apps are free and offer spoken directions; Waze also incorporates real-time information about traffic jams, accidents and speed traps collected by thousands of iPhones and Android.
In the meantime, it is probably best to let the iOS6 Maps app ripen in a corner for a while. The company's Web site calls it "the most beautiful, powerful mapping service ever." But for now, it is best to think of it as the most beautiful, entertainingly addled mapping service ever.
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