Why Apple had to change its maps

They may not be great, but they were inevitable.

It's been just under a week since Apple released iOS 6 for download, which contained an uncharacteristically unpolished new version of the built-in Maps app. So why did they do it?

They needed to switch provider

Prior to iOS 6, the information in the Maps app had been provided by Google. It's hard to remember now, but way back in 2007, Apple and Google were best of friends. Google's CEO Eric Schmidt sat on the Apple board of directors, and the two companies operated in completely different spheres. As a result, it made sense to ship the original iPhone with a ton of Google's products built-in.

As well as Maps, there was the YouTube app; Google was the default and only search engine in Safari; and it was the only email provider which was built-in to Mail. Gradually, as the two companies have come into conflict, largely from Google's attempt to enter the mobile sphere with their Android OS, Apple has dialled down these commitments, and iOS 6 is the largest step away yet, with the removal of the YouTube app and the change to the Maps.

But it's not just the case that Apple doesn't want a competitor on their phones. Google played its part in forcing Apple's hand.

Even by 2011, the launch of iOS 5, it was clear that Apple's implementation of Google Maps was falling behind the cutting edge. On Android phones, Google had implemented two key features which it had declined to make available to Apple: turn-by-turn driving directions, and vector-based map tiles. The advantage of the former is self-evident, particularly in car-obsessed America. The latter, while more of a technical change, allows the maps to use significantly less bandwidth, as well as making zooming clearer and smoother.

Neither of these features were in the original contract, signed for the launch of the iPhone, nor, it seems, were they included in the renewed contract, which was signed around May 2011. If Apple wanted them, they had to renegotiate with Google – and the terms the search giant wanted probably weren't ones Apple would accede to lightly.

The Wall Street Journal reveals some of the demands of both sides (£):

Apple executives also wanted to include Google's turn-by-turn-navigation service in the iPhone—a feature popular with Android users because it lets people treat their phones as in-car GPS devices. Google wouldn't allow it, according to people on both sides. One of these people said Google viewed Apple's terms as unfair.

Google executives, meantime, also bristled at Apple's refusal to add features that would help Google. For instance, Google wanted to emphasize its brand name more prominently within the maps app. It also wanted Apple to enable its service designed to find friends nearby, dubbed Latitude, which Apple refrained from doing, said people on both sides.

The inclusion of Latitude is less of a "feature" than it may seem. Although the friend-finding service is moderately popular – Apple has launched its own version, called "Find My Friends" – it also exists as a handy way for Google to harvest location data.

Anyone who knows much about Apple knows that those terms are not the sort that the company usually accedes to. Its aesthetic is minimalist, and its protection of customer data is legendary – its refusal to give subscriber records to magazine publishers, for example, is the reason why the FT cancelled its iOS app in May this year.

And even if Apple had agreed to those terms, the trajectory they and Google are on would only delay the switch temporarily. Tying a key service to your most important competitor is not the makings of a good business. If Google demanded more prominent branding this time, who's to say they wouldn't demand the right to serve ads next time? Or require a Google login to use advanced features?

The real question isn't whether it made sense for Apple to switch providers, but whether switching was a move which made sense for the consumers, or just for Apple themselves. Have they, as Anil Dash put it, "put their own priorities for corporate strategy ahead of user experience"?

That's debatable. Certainly, the benefits of an incorrect map are minimal. But the downsides to the change are short term – nobody seriously expects the maps to stay this bad for very long at all – while the upsides are permanent. Users do benefit from having their privacy protected, and from having a Map app which uses the whole screen to display maps, rather than reserving one corner for a Google logo. And having control of the app back in Apple's hands presumably means that users won't see another six years with no new features, either.

They needed to switch provider now

But if Apple did need to switch from Google's data, why do it now, when their own data is so clearly incomplete? After all, Apple had over a year left on their contract – they could have spent at least that much time improving their service.

The question takes on further import when we find out that the reason why Google hasn't got its own replacement maps app ready to go is that they the timing of the announcement apparently took them by surprise – the New York Times reports that they were expecting Apple to wait until their contract ran out before replacing them.

They certainly knew, long before it was confirmed in June this year, that Apple was developing their own maps. The company started making acquisitions in July 2009, and has made more since then.

Owing to the way Apple ships software updates, the map switchover could only have come now.

The deal, according to John Gruber, expires in the first half of 2013 – crucially, long before iOS 7 is expected. And as he writes:

An all-new maps back-end is the sort of feature that Apple would only want to ship in a major new OS release. Technically, they could roll such a thing out in a 6.1 or 6.2 update, but major changes — and I think everybody can agree this has been a major change, for users and app developers alike — should be delivered only in major new OS updates.

If Apple wanted to replace Google – which they did, and which Google knew they did – they had to do it now, run the risk of having to rush a major release, or confuse users even further by putting a major software change into a "minor" release.

They needed to release first, improve second

And the thing is, holding the update back wouldn't have actually helped. The problem with the iOS 6 Maps isn't a lack of polish. On the contrary, the experience is actually already more "Apple-like" than the old Google-based maps were, thanks to significantly better-looking map tiles, a more minimalist UI, and the very well-designed turn-by-turn directions.

The problem is a lack of data. And that just isn't something you can get with a few hundred testers based in Cupertino. Yeah, you can tell looking at the maps that your favourite coffee shop is on the wrong side of the street – but until you tell them, Apple has no easy way of knowing that they've got it wrong.

The Atlantic highlighted earlier this month just how hard it is to build good maps, and it's a process of eternal refinement. You don't just release a perfect map. You iterate, iterate, iterate, and hopefully you eventually get a map which is correct before the world itself changes to make it obsolete again.

iOS 6 Maps. Photograph: http://theamazingios6maps.tumblr.com

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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2017 is the year we realise we've been doing the Internet wrong

Networks can distribute power or they can centralise it.

A couple of years ago I visited Manchester tech start up Reason Digital. They were developing an app to help keep sex workers safe. The nature of sex work means workers are often vulnerable to crime, crimes which can be particularly difficult to solve because witnesses are reluctant to come forward and crime scenes often public and subject to interference.

Reason Digital thought if they could alert sex workers of relevant incidents in their vicinity – harassment, a foiled attack – that would help sex workers protect themselves.

So, of course, they created an app which tracked the location and habits of all sex workers in Manchester in a central database and sent out alerts based on where they were and what they were doing, right?

Did they hell.

They knew a real-time centralised, location database would immediately be a target for the very people they wanted to help protect sex workers from. Moreover, they wanted their app to empower sex workers, to put them in control. And they knew that sex workers would be reluctant to hand over any part of their hard fought privacy.

So the Reason Digital app kept the location and other data on the sex workers’ smart phone and let it decide which alerts were relevant and what information to share.

That is the kind of distributed, autonomous app putting people in control we just don’t see on the Net.  No, all the apps that improve our lives – from Facebook to Uber to match.com – cull the intelligence and data from the user and stick it in the vaults of a company or, occasionally, a government.

Thankfully, the majority of us are nowhere near as vulnerable as the majority of sex workers – to physical crime at least.

But we are increasingly vulnerable to cybercrime, a vulnerability which will increase exponentially once everything is connected to the Internet of Things.

And we are vulnerable to the exploitation of our data, whether through data mining or algorithmic determinism. Google’s search engine can be “gamed” by extremists, used to strengthen hatred and spread stereotypes. I have also been told one major dating site optimises it matchmaking algorithm for short term relationships – it means more return business. And Uber have admitted it knows you’re likely to pay more for a ride if your battery is low – which it also knows. Our data is what drives services and profits on the Net - but we’re unable to reap the rewards of the value we create.

That’s why 2017 will be the year we realise we got the Net wrong.

Not the underlying internet, designed by the public and third sectors in the seventies to be as distributed and autonomous as possible.

Or even the World Wide Web, invented in the nineties by the public and private sectors, again without central control.

But the apps developed in the last couple of decades to use the infrastructure of the internet to deliver services.

Networks can distribute power – like the electricity power grid –  or they can centralise it – like old boys networks.

Increasingly, I fear the Net is doing the latter.  And for three main reasons.

Firstly, a technical legacy of the early internet: in the days of slow broadband and unreliable devices it made sense to transmit as little as possible and control your user experience by centralising it. That problem is by and large history, but the centralisation remains.

Secondly these apps were mainly developed by a small group of privileged people – white, male, relatively well-off engineers. That’s why, for example, the biggest campaign of the early  internet pioneers was against porn filtering. Yes, for many years the most inspirational internet civil rights struggle was for rich western men to have absolutely untrammelled access to porn. So often I was the only woman at the conference table as this issue was raised again and again, thinking ‘is this really the biggest issue the tech community faces’?

But there is a seam of libertarianism in technology which sees it as above and beyond the state in general and regulation in particular. Even as a replacement for it. Who needs a public sector if you have dual core processing?  When tech was the poor relation in the global economy that could be interesting and disruptive. Now tech is the global economy, it is self-serving.

And thirdly these apps were developed in a time of neoliberal consensus. The state was beaten and bowed, shrunk to its role of uprooting barriers and getting out of the way of the brilliant, innovative, invisible hand of the private sector.  When I was at Ofcom in the 2000s we strove valiantly, day and night, to avoid any regulation of the internet, even where that included consumer rights and fairer power distribution.

As a consequence now the Net is distributing power but to the wrong people.

  • It’s not empowering the poor and dispossessed but the rich and self-possessed.
  • It’s not empowering sex workers in Manchester but criminal cartels in China.
  • It’s not empowering the  cabbie in Coventry but the $62Billion Uber everywhere.
  • It’s not empowering the plucky little startup in rural Hexhamshire but the global enterprise headquartered in Bermuda.
  • It’s not empowering the Nigerian market woman with a yam to sell but the Wall Street stockbroker with your data to market.
  • It’s not empowering the Iranian dissident but the Russian state.

That’s a betrayal of the power and original purpose of the net: for greater human empowerment.

To be sure some of that is happening. The Arab Spring, for example  Campaigns for the tampon tax and Black Lives Matter are enhanced by the web. Apps such as Pol.is and MassLBP look to make 

digital democracy work. Institutes like Newcastle’s Digital Civics Institute are working at systems to enable real democratic collaboration. Groups and enterprises such as Medical Confidential, MySociety, Cap Collectif and Delib try to deliver control back to the citizen consumer. European research project d-cent has helped develop tools that can make deliberative democracy work.

But against that we have the rapacious data centralisation of big companies and, at times, the state.

What we need is a government that is capable of leading and inspiring the tech sector to empower citizens and consumers. Ignoring the libertarian technocrats who say it’s for them to determine how tech power is distributed and remembering that the white heat of technology should be at the service of the people, not the other way round.  This government has neither the capacity nor the will to take on that mission. As part of our review of industrial strategy, Labour will be examining ways in which tech can be empowered to deliver the economy we want, and people empowered to make the best use of it.

Tech and politics are the twin drivers of progress, and I’m lucky enough to have worked in both. If there is one thing we have seen it is that as people become richer they have fewer children, more education and a greater sense of privacy and autonomy.  2017 is the year to start giving back to the people the data and control they should never have lost.

Chi Onwurah is the Labour MP for Newcastle upon Tyne Central, and the shadow minister for industrial strategy.