Things seem to have finally settled down over the error-ridden new Apple maps offering, particularly after CEO Tim Cook’s public apology. While this unusual executive move, coupled with suggestions to visit competing services, has done much to diffuse the public outrage over poor quality maps, many lessons are contained in these series of events.
The outrage over maps that have not performed as well as the ones they replaced included feelings of betrayal over failed services and a better understanding of our collective dependence on a fully controlled device. These locked-in ecosystems mean we can’t simply go back to what worked before, and are dependent on relationships forged by device makers. The blowback also highlights our increasing reliance on free and seamless online maps with navigation that have made location services central to our lives.
A quality mapping and navigation experience has become essential for our handheld devices, with many making the switch to a smart phone based on these services alone. The ability to navigate seamlessly, with updated real-time details such as traffic and weather, have put a whole new expectation on maps and mapping. It's quite amazing how we've moved from paper-based maps, and jotted down turn-by-turn directions, toward smart navigation services that factor in road conditions to get us to our destination in an expedited fashion.
Today's mapping platforms have done an exciting job of putting functionality together with data, and in a way that accepts our input and builds on our collective wisdom. This feedback happens through both our direct comments and aggregating our location with others to report on changing conditions such as traffic. These platforms continue to improve, presenting greater levels of realism and even more feeds that can be filtered to provide custom maps. To date, not much of these capabilities have been monitized by the marketing giants such as Google, but we can expect a greater commercialization that will translate into a flow of dollars. While Google and Apple have little to compete on yet other than mapping functionality, the true battle is a ways away when they compete to help businesses in their effort to draw us in.
Quality Equals Effort
People really don’t like it when directions go astray or when their digital map data omits locations or shows old items no longer there. You might recall a similar user outburst when Google Maps changed their base map from licensed data providers to more of a crowdsourced approach. While some detailed map views of wrong locations may be amusing, these failed maps have real safety implications when showing such things as airports in the wrong places or when routing instructions go awry.
Google has built such a solid mobile mapping experience that we were starting to take it for granted. They provide an easy to use and rich map that makes people think that it’s also easy to make. The realization that a great deal of effort goes into mapmaking, and that it's a constant pursuit because the world is constantly changing, is now an awareness among millions of people now thanks to Apple. Google now has its own fleet of cars traveling the globe, and before them and ongoing are the fleets of Nokia (NAVTEQ) that have gained a great deal of exposure. While crowdsourcing is certainly a viable way of map data collection, it also requires a high degree of rigor and precision to provide failsafe data that be relied upon for all manner of applications.
The mobile device manufacturers have managed to condition people to expect mapping services for free, undermining many business models along the way. However, the heightened awareness of the importance of quality data, has spawned a good deal of business for those that manufacture such professional tools as precision positioining tools and mapping software. The market has been shuffled as a result of universal map access, and with more users we can afford more more toolmakers and mappers as competition spurs the need for greater innovation.
Apple’s maps that are delivered via a cloud-based platform have the means to collect user feedback and will improve as they are used. With more than 100 million potential users of the applications, who can help to correct the errors with feedback, the app should get better quickly. Apple's overriding issue is that they rushed a service before it was ready, failing to benchmark it against expectation and accuracy. While the company suffered some lumps due their eagerness, the mapping community has gained a great deal of recognition and attention for the hard and essential work of mapmaking.