26 September 2012

Apple’s iOS 6 maps

Apple released its latest mobile operating system, iOS 6, with hundreds of new features. iOS 6 ushers to Apple’s move to not rely on Google technologies by removing YouTube and Maps. YouTube is now a third-party application released by Google and available on the iTunes App Store. This is a brilliant move for both parties -- for Apple, one less app to maintain (not easy to keep up with the latest features of Google’s YouTube without releasing an OS upgrade), and for Google, it gets to have full control of the YouTube app (and add inline advertisement for more revenue).
Maps, on the other hand, is a different beast. Maps are one of the important features of today’s smartphones. Before iOS 6, there are two popular map services available on smartphones, Google Maps and Nokia’s Maps. Today, Apple is now providing its own map service.

Apple’s iOS 6 maps is drawing a huge flak from its users. Personally, I like the way it uses vectors instead of bitmaps. Vector images are images represented as mathematical equations that are recomputed as it is rendered on the screen. Contrast this to bitmapped images, which require each image tile to be downloaded depending on the current zoom level.  The consequence is that vector images allow better caching (in case you go offline), and given the same cache storage space, provides more coverage (area).
Apple’s 3D Flyover is an interesting feature, but IMHO, not much use like Google Map’s StreetView. Yes, both are useful, but not as much as the accuracy of the map, and the accuracy of the directions provided by the map.
Speaking of accuracy, this is where Apple’s iOS 6 Map app falls short. During its beta, I found a huge error on the map right smack where I live. The map was missing a road connecting the main subdivision road to the national road. This rendered directions erroneous because it directed me to use roads that either lead to dead-end or take a longer route. I filed a report to have it fixed, and the error is still there - after two betas, a GM and release version.
Unfortunately, it is not a one-off thing. Users all over the world are experiencing the same thing -- just proves that Apple’s map gamble is not paying off (yet). However, IMHO, Apple is not going to go back to Google for maps. Apple understands the importance of map data, and this move ensures that Apple will not be held hostage to Google’s map data licensing costs (remember, using Google Map for apps isn’t free). With Apple in full-control of its map data, it can devote a huge chunk of its billions (perhaps from the Samsung infringement case) to rapidly evolve this. Apple is also relying on its users to make the data accurate, the same way that Google is doing the same for its mapping event (plenty in the Philippines, headed by Ms. Aileen Apolo-de Jesus of Google).
Apple’s iOS6 Maps is a very young contender to heavyweights like Google Maps and Nokia Maps. It took both Google and Nokia a number of years to perfect its map data, and given time, Apple will have the same level of accuracy (I am sure of this). However, how long it will take for Apple to be up to par is the main question.
It will be up to users to help Apple improve it -- via crowdsourcing. It is more of a chicken-or-egg issue, with inaccurate maps, users will not use it, and if it is not being used, how can it be corrected and updated?
For the meantime, you can use Waze for your travel directions and navigation, and use Google’s Map services via Safari. It pretty much works like the old app. You can even pin the URL on your phone’s Home screen for faster access.
At least until Google releases its own Maps app for iOS, which is rumoured to be released before Christmas, pending Apple’s approval, of course. Three months to suffer the iOS 6 Maps? Bummer! I hope that Google brings vectorized maps, similar to its Android app version, on iOS -- that will surely put a huge dent on Apple’s maps plans.




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