Apple Maps is a beautiful application with an elegant UI. Clearly, Apple worked hard (and partnered with people who worked hard) to put out this stunning product. Unfortunately, none of that matters when melting bridges and people lost in the Australian bush snare headlines. And that’s the problem — although the app may be fairly accurate, its holes are sporadic and glaring, resulting in a randomness that can put users in dangerous situations.
That’s largely why there’s so much attention on the maps issue. Inconvenient tech glitches are one thing, but problems that put people in harm’s way are another. Add the fact that voice-guided turn-by-turn navigation was so long desired by the iOS userbase, and you have a genuine PR nightmare.
When you talk about mapping, the obvious place to look for context is Apple Maps’ primary competitor, Google Maps. The company, whose iOS app just launched in the App Store, has innumerable teams of people tirelessly driving around in GPS-equipped cars with cameras, capturing a massive amount of ever-changing data. That’s right, because streets change, municipalities re-route traffic and natural events can shut down or even decimate through-ways. And it happens all the time.
Of course, no one company is perfect. Google Maps isn’t 100 percent accurate, either. But there’s a very strong fanbase for it, and the key to that doesn’t lie in the tech. Real people drive around those cars ad nauseum, and real people assess the data. Their virtuosity in manipulating the road and highway information — comparing them to official city layouts and real-world usage reports, and endlessly tweaking them — is an incredible operation in itself. And it allows the company to be responsive in a challenging field.
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Apple, on the other hand, doesn’t own its Maps data. It uses TomTom’s. That may make the failure seem like a technical issue, but it’s not the real problem. The Atlantic made a great point about something else: human capital. Cupertino doesn’t employ the legions of (necessary) dedicated people to ensure that those roads are accurately mapped, or even that towns are correctly placed. Over time, it may get better, but likely not quickly enough to keep pace with the ongoing changes. It may never keep up with the likes of Google Maps without hordes of people finessing that data — which, let’s face it, is highly unlikely. It is that, more than anything, that puts the future of Apple Maps into question.
The learning lesson here is that technology can only go so far, at least for now. You can’t replace real people, not in an epic endeavor that critically requires genuine intelligence. Human beings are still needed behind the scenes, whether for mapping applications or other services.
As it is, Apple couldn’t — and may never — deliver as good of a navigational product as Google Maps. But it did a smart thing by letting GMaps into the App Store. It was the right thing to do, for the sake of any iOS users who are nervous about that native application.
It’s funny how irreplaceable human beings still are in technology, and yet these companies’ most human traits may also be their biggest failings. Maybe it was sheer hubris for Apple to think navigation was as simple as just grabbing data from another company and slapping a pretty interface on it. Maybe it was stubbornness that kept Google from integrating voice-guided turn-by-turn features into its native iOS app to begin with. That’s reportedly a big reason why Apple ditched it in the first place, despite the fact that it has long graced the Android application and now comes in its third-party iOS app.
Regardless, it’s a sight for sore eyes to see Google Maps in the App Store now.