Apple's Hamstrung iOS 6 Services

Apple’s overwhelming desire to control their own destiny typically leads them to build anemic, isolated services that barely have a leg up only on their own devices. After installing iOS 6 on my iPad (3) I decided not to move forward with the install for my iPhone 4, at least for the time being. I want to detail my reasons for this aversion to what iOS 6 offers, even if some points have been brought up on The Verge, and elsewhere.

Share it With (Qualifying) Friends & Family

Apple has highlighted Mountain Lion, and iOS 6, as major revisions for sharing media with other people in your life. They don’t include the giant asterisk along with a disclaimer about your restrictions. Apple made an alliance with Twitter, Flickr, Vimeo, and now with Facebook, to let you pull contact info from those service and send up snippets of text, photo, video, and other media. This is Apple selecting partners you can share your stuff with. The user can’t add YouTube, DropBox, Evernote, or any other third party. This sharing, under very strict dictates of high-level business agreements, is still more free than sharing a Photo Stream.

To share a Photo Stream, you simply select photos and pick Photo Stream from the Share menu. So easy. Oh, wait, you need to add people to a list to invite, and you can only add their email addresses, which needs to be the same as their Apple ID. If you only know an iPhone user’s phone number, then you are out of luck, because it must be an email address. Apple doesn’t tell you this, but you can’t edit the list of invitees after you send this, so do try and guess the correct email, just so you don’t publicly embarrass yourself. Once you send the invite, a very traditional, and unexciting email goes out with a link. Mission accomplished? Hardly. If you sent it to the wrong email address, or you sent it to someone that lacks qualifying operating system software to access the information on.

Can you imagine if sharing on Flickr worked liked this? Sure you need to login with Flickr, but you can log in from any device with a web browser. Same with Facebook.

This might not shock people that use FaceTime, but with FaceTime you’re generally only relying on one other person to have a compatible device for a very temporary connection. When you’re sharing data with large groups of people there will be a higher chance you have someone you can not share your cat photos with. iMessage solves this gracefully (might be the only time “iMessage” and “gracefully” were used in the same sentence). With iMessage, it detects a group message will go out to non-iMessage recipients and falls back to SMS for the group message. With Shared Photo Streams, there is no fallback other than skipping Shared Photo Streams and using services that figured out “social” over half a decade ago.

Sprawl of Siloed Services

Too much digital ink has been spilled to point fingers and create hypothetical scenarios where the breakup of Google and Apple was the fault of a particular party. It really doesn’t matter who started it, what matters is the replacement product. Apple chose to concoct their own solution behind closes doors and ship it in a surprise strike –a surprise for customers more than Google.

Apple could have selected another maps partner to provide the full data set Google once did, but then they would be replacing one deep dependency with another deep dependency. Apple chose to create an umbrella for information from disparate sources. Weak sources that could more easily be controlled, or manipulated, because no one source exclusively provides the data. If Apple doesn’t renew their contract with Waze, or Tom Tom, they will plug in something else. These machinations do little for the consumer, particularly if any consumer grows to rely on data from a particular service that could get pushed out from under this sanctioned umbrella service.

Curiously, there is one exclusive provider for points of interest, restaurant reviews, etc. and that is Yelp. OpenTable only provides reservation services for restaurants, none of their user review data (or their review data from Gayot) is used. There are no authoritative reviews (New York Times, Los Angeles Times, SF Gate, Michelin, Google-owned Zagat, etc.) Curiously, Apple is fine with relying on Wikipedia for supplemental information in their universal definitions (the ability to lookup and define words spans iOS and Mac now) but they don’t use Wikipedia for POI information.

Yelp review of Yelp

★ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆

Search for “Los Angeles City Hall” and you’ll get 2 pins dropped very near one another in Downtown LA. Yelpers created two different entries, at different addresses for the historic building. The one with the “official” blue “i” dot is an entry with a singular review, with a singular star, from singular person, unhappy about a singular issue.

“[City Councilor] Ms. [Jan] Perry, you really should return a phone call or email if you want us to vote for you for mayor.” –BM G. 6/22/12

Cool review, bro. You are the official blue “i” dot of City Hall.

Search for “Beverly Hills City Hall” and a red pin drops at the West Hollywood City Hall. Pasadena, Santa Monica, and Culver City fare much better. The “US Bank Tower” produces two pins that simply say “US Bank” and point to the corporate web site, while the old name, “The Library Tower” has the official Yelp entry with 3 reviews from people that are just psyched about the tower being there and stuff. No information on anything about the tallest building in California, 10th tallest in the US. There are extensive entries for all of these places in Wikipedia. There are official web sites for these city halls, and parks that might be correctly cited in Yelp, or might not. All of this data, the majority of which Apple isn’t using, is vacuumed up by Google’s Knowledge Base and Google Maps, keenly intertwined to provide many sources of information for you. Apple has decided you only need Yelp in Maps.

Reporting a problem seems reasonable, and I have done so in every occasion I have encountered a flaw. I have no idea when, or how, the issues will be addressed. Which company owns these fixes? Does the data coming in from Yelp get patched up on Apple’s side, by Apple employees? That would leave room for disparity between the two services. Do the problems get shuttled over for people at Yelp to address in their data? There’s no way to ask for a digital receipt for the reported issues so they might be funneled in to a bucket with hundreds of thousands of others. There is also a gap in what I consider to be a flaw in maps, and what Yelp or Apple might consider to be a flaw.

Yelp’s reviews produce a meaningless scale of stars and sharp volatility in the usefulness of reviews. There are people tripping over themselves to award five stars for every morsel, four stars because something looked neat, and there are those that scrounge up one or two stars because that weren’t “wowed”. Nearly all reviews start as either a story about a birthday party or about how excited they were to try it based on a review in LA Weekly or The Los Angeles Times (reviews not included or sourced). Many people feel that the volume of reviews creates an acceptable average rating, but the number of reviews, and the time period of total reviews, can vary depending on how many hipster birthdays there were when a place just opened and was “so hot right” then.

Transitional Transit Trama

Every journalist, blogger, and avid tech aficionado has known that Apple’s iOS 6 Maps would have no transit information. Many rural, or suburban, iPhone owners won’t see it as a big deal at all. Los Angeles, known for it’s vast sprawl and car culture is still hit in the few places where public transit was finally starting to make inroads. LA opened the Expo Line from Culver City thru USC to the LA Convention Center, and Downtown this year. It is now possible to ride for a buck fifty and skip traffic on The 10 freeway altogether. Just don’t expect any of the free transit apps iOS 6 Maps recommends to give you any information on the Expo Line. It’s not even listed by either. Oh, but you can go to the App Store to find and download the crummy “Go Metro” app from LA’s Metro authority and you’ll have a terrible user experience with information that can be accessed, if you know all the right terms that the Metro app likes for locations. There is no communication between this app and iOS 6 Maps whatsoever, it is not recognized as a transit app.

This highlights a policy problem with Maps that seems to contradict my complaint about relying on singular sources for data, like Yelp. This should be everyone’s dream solution, you can link up with whatever app you want to acquire services from! This isn’t integration though, it’s not features of the iOS Map, this is shunting you off to be a third party developer’s problem, in that developer’s mini walled garden. That’s reflected in some transit app reviews that have been published since iOS 6 went live. Here are three, posted verbatim, spelling and grammar left in tact for the full App Store review experience:

Esta asqueroso Es confuso, lento y no te da indicaciones precisas, regresenme mi maps anterior por favor

MEH! Someone please help me find a bus to school as this app is useless.

Making things worse IOS6 Map is just immensely unreliable for map searching, getting directions, especially with public transportation. This app itself is trying its best but does not deliver a good enough quality compare to google maps…

It might be fun to mock these one-star reviewers, like Yelpers, but we can at least take these outbursts as an expression of real problems they’re facing now after they upgraded. They’re blaming the wrong party, but Apple has thrown these users over the fence to developers to manage. The way Apple frames transit, is that it’s the developer’s listed here that are responsible for happy users. Hey it’s an open market of used-to-be free services, and possibly-working, paid solutions.

Even communication between the iOS 6 Maps and your third party map is mostly broken, which only exacerbates this. Your destination searches for non-literal addresses (“Downtown Los Angeles”, “Culver City”, “Beverly Dr. and Pico Blvd.”) will produce different results when iOS 6 hands the search terms over to the third party app, not the resolved location in iOS 6 Maps from the search term.

In HopStop, one of the two free transit apps iOS 6 points me towards, a search for “Current Location” to “Downtown Los Angeles” literally hands those unresolved terms over to the third party. I give the third party access to my current location, which hopefully they’ll only use for Good, and I also get treated to their resolution of “Downtown Los Angeles” which is not the same as what iOS resolves to. Not off by a couple blocks either, it literally drops a pin at the border of Los Angeles nearest to me. If I search for the term manually in the app, by entering only “Downtown” in the search field, and letting the drop-down “Los Angeles” do the rest, then I get directed through Downtown LA to Downtown Fullerton to Downtown Anaheim. An inexplicable routing maneuver. There is also no way to pipe this back to the Maps app, this search now lives here, in this transit app, in isolation from any other service or app. The third party developer can expose some sharing abilities but those are not universal, and certainly don’t let you go to another mapping alternative.

The best transit directions are on the junky Google Maps mobile site. A resource that iOS 6 Maps won’t mention to you at all.

Next Stop: Developers or Apple

It is easy to imagine a world where third party developers eventually fulfill transit demands set by users and create local solutions for users, no matter how many different regional apps it takes. However, that still won’t embed transit directions in the Maps app. That would eventually involve Apple either partnering with third parties to embed some data (like Yelp, Tom Tom) and leaving other duplicate apps out, or Apple may end up trying to work with acquiring data directly and embedding it. If they backtrack on sending users to transit apps, then they’re giving a big middle-finger to the developers they are dumping customers on right now.

Walled-Garden-Inception

Perhaps the most damning aspect of this perpetual Apple approach to services is a new walled garden, inside a walled garden, inside a walled garden. This is Walled-Garden-Inception. OpenTable talks to Maps, not Yelp, Yelp talks to Maps, not Tom Tom, transit apps sit in complete isolation, but sometimes take the search terms Maps spits out and do their own thing that doesn’t go to any other service, and I can share a screenshot of my frustration in a Photo Stream someone might not be able to see.

Siloing the data these pieces can use makes them even more spotty. That is nothing compared to walling off Maps from non-iOS 6 devices. Google’s biggest asset is being able to share data across all of its services, and provide you with a way to access data on nearly any internet connected device. Apple’s approach, just like FaceTime, or Shared Photo Streams, means the real world utility of the service is handicapped. I want to share directions with a friend that has an Android device. Tough. I want to lookup something on my computer and send it to my iPhone for later. Tough. I want to develop a web service with native clients and I want the same maps experience in the web service and client. Tough. I could go on, but think of every place you’ve seen a Google Map and then think of how Apple has not just isolated themselves from Google, but about how they isolated themselves from being useful, and competitive. Not just to users, but helpful to developers that are the lifeblood of app ecosystems. Parts of Apple services have been accessible through browsers in the past, and their iCloud site continues that tradition, but iCloud in the browser is not something you build on top of. It is not something developers can create cross-device storage, and sharing solutions; it’s a mock-iOS interface to tweak a couple things and find your iPhone in the couch cushions.

I very much want Apple to succeed and do well (disclaimer: I own a few shares) but their current success seems to be in spite of their flops in connected services. They should be leveraging that success to do well when they commit to these services.

Some might think it’s proper for Apple to isolate their services, to protect value for their devices, and their brand, but when you need to compete against services where sharing data and media is involved, there is no substitute for involving as many useful inputs, and as many useful outputs as you can get your hands on.