Map Ado About Nothing

Navigation It’s amazing how much noise in mobile technology is created for issues that are at best marginal. For example, there was the iPhone 4 Antennagate. Honestly, my iPhone 4 didn’t give me any antenna problems, nor did my iPhone 4s. I really love my current Nexus 4 phone, but it actually does have problems dropping signal or weak signal. Sometimes it just won’t connect in a place where I know it should, and I have to reboot it. Of course, there is no Nexus 4 antennagate, though perhaps there should be.

So I thought I’d touch on another non-issue… maps in smartphone navigation. I haven’t done any comprehensive test of maps that you could call scientific, but I do know what my own experience is, and it somehow doesn’t match what the noise on the internet says. For the record, I have an android phone and table, and an iOS phone and tablet, so I can currently run checks that should be pretty good.

One thing that I’ve done frequently when I travel with colleagues from work is have us both run our mapping apps at the same time. In the past, I’ve had multiple occasions where the android device using Google maps got us to the wrong location, while the Apple device was correct. Bit caveat here – I normally use a paid app on the iPhone, either Navigon or Magellan. I happen to believe that with maps you get what you pay for, and my experience continues to support that. With that in mind, I really was comparing Google maps to paid maps.

And there’s the rub – if you’re used to old-fashioned web-base map applications with static routes and static turn-by-turn, then the Google map app is amazing. More still if you’ve been stuck in the tar pits and are using a paper map. The experience is so much better with Google, that the fans tend to overlook the comparison with serious GPS applications and devices, where Google maps looks mediocre at best. Don’t get me wrong, Google has a good track record of improving things they care about, and maps seems to be one of them, so it probably will get there. At the moment however, it takes a back seat to the traditional GPS big boys.

So Apple dumped Google map late last year for their own app, how has that worked out? Well there was a lot of noise about how horrible it was and how much money it would cost and how long it would take to fix them. As it turned out, many fixes were made much faster than the naysayers predicted. Surprise – Apple has deep pockets! Note that Apple still has a ways to go, especially against the afore-mentioned GPS big boys, but overall it’s not bad. Like Google, if Apple cares, they’ll fix the problems. If it’s a “marketing checkbox” for them, then it’ll never get fixed. I’d hope for the former, but since I almost always use 3rd party map apps and currently carry the Nexus 4 as my primary, it doesn’t really matter to me.

As far as the reason Apple changed, I’ll leave that as an exercise for the aspiring journalist, but a few possible reasons are:

a) Apple wants to screw us
b) Apple wants to screw Google
c) Apple wants to stop sending revenue in Google’s direction
d) Apple wanted to build voice turn-by-turn full app and Google license didn’t allow it

apple_maps_tomtom1apple_maps_tomtom2 A point to remember in this comparison is also that many people still don’t seem to know that TomTom supplies at least some of the map data behind Apple maps. Note from the picture on the left the TomTom name right above the “Drop Pin” button. On the right look for TomTom intellectual property in the last paragraph. Everyone loves TomTom, everyone hates Apple – what does that tell you about anti-fanboi-ism? The people at TomTom say that the data is fine, and the app has problems, and I suspect they’re correct. I suspect the overall question of accuracy is less troublesome than people make it out to be.

The question is how does it work out in real life usage. I have three examples I’d like to share. My first actual test was traveling to San Francisco for a conference. It was a quick trip, so I decided to use public transit and my feet. Yes, here Apple has a problem, they need public transit support. I was lucky, because I knew basically what I was doing to get from Airport to downtown. The maps came into play when I exited the subway and tried to find my hotel.

In the past, I’ve not been very happy with GPS when I’m on foot in a city. Out in the field they’re great, but when trapped between tall buildings and weak signal it’s tricky, plus nuances of direction and signal accuracy can be far more confusing. On this point Apple scored big for me. When you drill down to their 3D view, you can actually tell not just where you want to go, but where you actually are. Foot travel was a win for Apple. I do happen to enjoy Google’s street view, but I don’t find it useful for navigation.

Best Buy SLO location in Google maps on a Nexus 4
Best Buy SLO location in Google maps on a Nexus 4

The second experience was a recent trip to San Luis Obispo. At the hotel I found myself missing a wanted cable, (gotta have that HDMI cable so I can connect my table to the hotel TV) so I set out in search of the local Best Buy. It was my first trip carrying the Nexus 4, so I was using Google maps.

Best Buy SLO location in Apple maps in iOS 6 on an iPhone 5
Best Buy SLO location in Apple maps in iOS 6 on an iPhone 5

As you can see from the maps on either side, Google got it wrong, while Apple got it right. Unfortunately for me, I was only carrying the Nexus 4 at the time, and had to resort to stopping at a few stores to get directions. When I tried it on my iPhone later, you can see that it put me at the store front, rather than the middle of an empty field.

I know that this happens to Apple maps users as well, the point is that Google also suffers from it’s own share of inaccuracies. I will note that in this instance, I definitely like the better imagery of the Google maps, but accuracy has to come first. Imagery quality varies by locations, sometimes giving the nod to Google, and other times Apple.

Another situation happened to me on New Year’s Eve at the Pomona Valley Mining Co in Pomona, CA. I’ve driven past the place numerous times, as it sits on a hill above the freeway, but I’ve never actually been there and wasn’t sure how to approach it, so I took to the phone maps once again.

pomico_la_iphone4 The top picture, captured from my iPhone, shows a good route using Apple maps. Unfortunately, this was captured after-the-fact, having been misdirected by Google I was curious once again to see if the Apple maps had it right.

The bottom photo is where my Google maps on my Nexus 4 tried to send me. Note that it was correct up until the last, where it directed me for a final right turn, instead of a left and a quick-right. Lucky for me I stopped at the intersection with no traffic behind me and figured it out. pomico_la_nexus4_google

As a funny afterthought, I tried the same thing at home using Navigon on android and it got me to the same wrong place as Google maps, while Navigon on iOS just stopped at the road itself where Android was telling me to turn right, without telling me to turn left or right. This one surprised me, as I’ve had pretty good luck with Navigon. Magellan on iOS did the “right” thing by telling me to turn left. I’m not sure what maps sit behind Navigon on both platforms, but it would be interesting to know.

So there you have it, so far I’ve tried Apple maps three times against Google, and where I live and travel, Apple works out better than Google. What have your experiences with maps been? What app do you really love?

[Update 2016-03-11 It really depends where you live. In the Tysons Corner / McLean Virginia area Apple maps is horrible. In California it’s generally pretty good. Waze is really great in lots of areas – but mostly where there is heavy population density.]

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