iPhone 5 Maps debacle may not be entirely Apple’s fault

SAN FRANCISCO, CA – SEPTEMBER 12: The new iPhone 5 is displayed during an Apple special event at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts on September 12, 2012 in San Francisco, California. Apple announced the iPhone 5, the latest version of the popular smart phone as well as new updated versions of the iPod Nano, Shuffle and Touch. (Image credit: Getty Images via @daylife)

In this post I will explain why in part I blame Google, TomTom and Yelp! Apple have a well-earned reputation for introducing things that “just work.”   Unfortunately, there is no way of denying it, even for an Apple fan-boy,  this is not one of those occasions.

There is no doubt that the Maps app is beautiful, and that it will surely improve, but at least today, as one writer puts it, the icing is great but there are serious issues about the cake!  Just to begin with, however, if you are worried about the Apple maps app, you can still use http://maps.google.com from mobile safari, or install a third-party mapping app.To take a step back from the current criticism, we have to ask ourselves first, why did Apple produce their own mapping app in the first place? Clearly the answer lies firmly at the door of Google.  Apple had them tied down it seems to provide maps and YouTube videos in their operating systems minus any adverts.  So for years iPhone users have enjoyed an advert-free experience on these mobile apps.

Google it seems probably did not want to renew on the same terms, and certainly the new YouTube app which you can download already to your iOS 6 enabled phone has adverts in it.  But more importantly even than that, it seems highly likely that Google has been resisting introducing critical features like proper turn-by-turn navigation into their iOS app despite having made them available for Android.  To me that is simply anti-competitive.  Apple then it would appear were faced with a stark choice, continue to use Google and have adverts but probably still no turn by turn directions or do their own thing.  Despite the teething problems I am glad they chose to do their own thing.  Having already dispensed with carrying video cameras, point and shoot cameras, watches, mp3 players, address books, diaries, in some cases even laptops, iPhone users are eager to ditch their SatNav devices also!

yelp inc magazineSo, it seems Apple had a massive task to achieve in a short time.  And so they turned to partners TomTom and Yelp! who I believe have let them down badly.  TomTom must surely share some responsibility for the mapping errors, and their statement came out a little too quickly, and a little too actively promoted their own SatNav devices and iOS app a little too vigorously for my liking!

TomTom said “We are confident about our map quality, as selling 65 million portable navigation devices across the world and more than 1.4m TomTom apps for iPhone in the past two years reaffirms this quality.”  Could it be that they sold Apple an outdated version of their map data on purpose?  It certainly smells a little like that to me, though of course I cannot prove that.

On the other hand, a simple search on the Apple Maps app for  local businesses, and comparing that to results found on the Yelp! app or their website reveals a shocking discrepancy.  Some businesses that closed years ago (eg Woolworths in the UK) appear in the Apple results but not the Yelp! results. Some businesses that have been available on the Yelp! site for years do not appear in Apple searches!

Now, the question is did Yelp! simply give Apple a very old version of their dataset or is it some kind of corrupted version?  Either way, with Yelp! branding throughout the Apple Maps search experience it is surely clear that some of the blame for some of the glitches lies at the door of Yelp!

Right now, if I was Tim Cook Apples CEO, I would definitely be locking up my own Maps team till they can sort the biggest glitches out (nobody can blame Yelp! or TomTom for deleting the Statue of Liberty, for example!). But I would also be on the phone to the CEOs of both Yelp! and TomTom demanding they help to fix the outdated and erroneous mapping and local business data immediately.

But Apple made a fundamental error in simply switching this all on in a single day when all their iPhones  upgrade. They should have either released a Beta mobile app a few months ago, or created a beta website.  Then, they should have created a way for people to alert them to errors they saw in the maps. Thousands or even millions of people spotting errors as basic as clouds covering much of Scotland, or pointing out errors in local business listings would have saved them the embarrassment they are experiencing today, on a day which should have been their most glorious to date with the biggest launch of a smart phone ever.

People do have short memories, however, as it wasn’t so many years ago that Google Maps on the web was atrocious, with multiple listings for some businesses and none for others.  Where Google were sensible, however, is that they allowed their users to highlight these errors and over the years as a result their data quality is improving.  Where is Apple’s attempt at crowd sourcing reporting these glitches? Answer: they do have a simple approach to do this now, but perhaps that is a little late!

There is a fundamental problem in the way some big tech companies do business at the moment, and there is no doubt that it is anti-competitive, and actually damaging to their own interests.  Ironically, Google from a business perspective it seems should never have developed Android in the first place since Google earns more money per iPhone user than per Android userApple will be more keen than ever today to change all that, and you can surely predict that if anybody can create a search engine to truly rival Google’s it will be the default engine for iOS 7 and beyond!  But if Google had just played ball with Apple, there is no doubt that both companies would be richer today, and I suspect that whoever had developed to be the leading competitor to Apple in the mobile operating system space would not have been as successful as Google has, and even more of us would be using iPhones.

Amazon is the company that has seemed to understand that you have to separate your content provision from your hardware businesses.  They chose to be platform agnostic with their Kindle book offerings.  As a result, you can still buy a physical kindle and many do, but you can read the same books on either an Apple device or an Android device.  You can even read your book on your iPhone on the train, and pick up at the same place on your Kindle back at home.  Surely that is a win for Amazon, and a win for consumers everywhere.

Perhaps TomTom and Yelp! haven’t deliberately sabotaged the launch of Apple Maps, but it sure looks to me like they could have done a much better job helping Apple become a competitor to the mapping behemoth that is Google. Surely that would have been in their interests? Perhaps Apple should have bought them with their vast cash reserves instead of partnering with them.  Surely this morning, those two companies should be sharing some of the blame and some of the embarrassment that Apple must be feeling.

At the end of the day the consumer suffers.  I do hope that Apple under Tim Cook will be able to get these problems fixed quickly.  If they do, the next mountain is surely web search, and if they can solve both of these problems that have left them to this point dependent on Google, suddenly Google will surely be the looser. I really don’t think this would have happened if Steve Jobs had still been alive!


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  • Tommy

    As an insider in this industry I KNOW that this is not TomTom’s mistake. Apple has licenced data from TomTom and many others, like Open Street Maps. But primarily TomTom. The errors occur where Apple merged these data, and has overwritten TomTom data with other data sources. Also Yelp doesn’t cover all adressses (points of interest) needed. They are good at hotels, eateries, et all. But what about hospitals, parking lots or schools? It’s not only food and ratings that a map user is interested in! They were probably too focussed on getting rid of Google and earning some advertising (with Yelp) rather than give a good total location and navigation experience. Which they could have.

    The best thing to do now for Apple is to acquire TomTom. Give these articles some good reads: