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Why Apple had to change its maps

They may not be great, but they were inevitable.

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

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.