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iOS 6 Map: Severe Backlash For Apple?

The latest version of Apple iPhone software iOS6 has been out for only a few days, but the web is already full of users voicing their disappointment about map inaccuracies and the lack of transit mode and, last but not least, a bug in the compass function that send you the opposite way when you are looking for a direction on the map.

Mashable reported that Apple spokesperson Trudy Miller released a statement in response to the negative feedback: “We launched this new map service knowing it is a major initiative and that we are just getting started with it. Maps is a cloud-based solution and the more people use it, the better it will get. We appreciate all of the customer feedback and are working hard to make the customer experience even better.“

This weak statement is obviously not likely to satisfy frustrated users that are not really used to buy half-baked product from Apple.

It seems that Apple underestimated the task at hand to make a great mapping software and made a point to develop everything themselves rather than to rely on well proven technologies from white label third parties.

“Clearly Apple didn’t do enough testing and do not have a local understanding of the requirements in each market,“ according to Michael Cottle, vice president of sales at deCarta, a geospatial software provider. “As those of us who have been in this space for a long time know, mapping and search is a highly localized subject. Looking for “Heathrow” or “Stanstead” are local preferences, it is something that comes from an understanding of the local market requirements. You don’t gain this appreciation sitting in a cubicle in Cupertino.“

“Errors are an inevitable and ongoing part of building maps/geodata, which is why services like TomTom’s MapShare and Google’s Map Maker exist,“ moderates Patrick Connolly, analyst at ABI Research. “People forget that Google had similar problems and it has taken time for it to get to where it is today.  It hasn’t helped that there have never been so many people to catch so many mistakes in such a short space of time, with so many mediums on which to broadcast them.“

One of the questions people may ask is if the data used by Apple is good enough. “The finger is already being pointed at partners like Waze and TomTom, but it is Apple’s responsibility to tie these sources together into a service,“ said Connolly.

“We believe that this is not a data issue. It’s a software issue,“ added Cottle.

Consequences

So what are the likely consequences for Apple?

“As the long lines outside the shops attest to, no one is not going to buy an iPhone because the maps are deficient. But they will certainly consider using other more effective local maps. In some way this is a great boon to companies like ours who were originally concerned about Apple Navigation/Maps. I think we can all sleep a little easier,“ said Cottle.

Connolly shares the same view on this topic: “no doubt some will hold off an upgrade to iOS6 and/or buying a new phone but it’s not as if huge volumes of people are going to start switching to Android as a result.“

If bad maps will likely not hinder the sales of the iPhone 5, it could however have an impact on the use of the new Map SDK by developers. “Short to mid-term they'll have a harder time convincing developers to just move over to the new Map SDK given the crappy quality. And of course Google/Android and Microsoft/Nokia will not be late to communicate the difference in quality compared to their own offerings in the end affecting end-users and Apple sales,“ commented another industry executive that wanted to remain anonymous.

“Apple may need to reassess its current geodata aggregation strategy and the resources assigned to this area, which may lead to a round of high profile hiring and acquisition,“ said Connolly.

He also added: “Longer term, Apple doesn’t have the same resources as Google, and it will continue to rely on acquisitions and 3rd parties. If Apple can get its house in order and build a successful geodata engine, it may find over time that sourcing 3rd party data also has its advantages. Google isn’t the best at everything and with social and indoor becoming important parts of the pie, there may be benefits.“

In the mapping arena Apple has certainly lost a battle this week - and proved its iPhone product management is not immune to failure - but the war is just getting started.

Ludovic Privat