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Apple races to fix Maps, but how fast can it go?

Apple races to fix Maps, but how fast can it go?


Speed is of the essence when customers' trust is on the line

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Ever so slowly, Apple and its partners are making improvements to the underlying data supporting the new Maps app in iOS 6. As such, Cupertino is starting to deliver on its statement from last Thursday saying that it "was just getting started" with Maps, and that Apple was "continuously improving" its data "to make the customer experience even better."

"The more people use it, the better it will get."

The company is hoping that customers will take advantage of the Report a Problem tool found within Maps — that allows users to submit their own corrections for inaccurate locations and information. What’s not known is how fast Apple's partners react to the submissions it receives, a factor that could be critical in order to allay any fears of mapping issues for customers.

Jamie Ryan of Coolsmartphone has noticed from his testing that the turnaround for corrections is surprisingly quick. After submitting two name changes for local venues using the Report a Problem tool, Ryan found that the information had been updated in under 24 hours.

Certain point-of-interest naming errors, posted to the now infamous The Amazing iOS 6 Maps Tumblr on September 21st, have since been corrected as well. The Santa Maria del Fiore — otherwise known as the Florence Cathedral — has been correctly renamed. The Palace of Justice in Vienna has also been restored, previously labeled as the Palace of Justice in Nürnberg, Germany.

That speedy turnaround didn’t present itself in our own tests

That speedy turnaround didn’t present itself in our own tests. Maps still showed an incorrect location for one of the entrances to the Earl’s Court Underground station in London three days after the original submission. Maps believes it’s opposite the Chelsea and Westminster Hospital, almost a full mile away from the correct location. Meanwhile, Maps lists both the Dolby Theatre and Kodak Theatre in Los Angeles despite the name change in May 2012.

Changes to basic issues could be made "quite quickly," according to Michael Dobson of TeleMapics, speaking to The Verge. Business listings, on the other hand, are more troublesome. "[Companies] often license [the] data from more than one supplier due to concerns about accuracy and coverage. This often results in duplicate listings that are time consuming to resolve."

Apple may be relying on crowdsourced data from users to make corrections, but it only solves part of the problem. "Most companies that use crowd-sourced data to assist in targeting map errors use it as a tool that points them in the right direction," says Dobson, but the information needs to be verified before it can be added to the database. In the case of more complex issues such as street name changes, or even entirely new intersections, city planning maps would need to be consulted along with other official documents.

Google has the advantage in this regard: it can refer to Street View to pinpoint any changes, with the company regularly updating its imagery thanks to an army of cameras mounted to cars, tricycles, and backpacks. Apple may be able to mine some data from Google’s existing cache, but it won’t have access to the most up-to-date images that Google is constantly collecting.

Google has the advantage

Even after the corrected data has been verified, it would take time to push out the new results. Dobson believes that "more complex issues require a week or longer." In the case of Waze, the crowdsourced navigation application, major changes adhere to a similar timeline. "It's usually a period of one to two weeks before the changes... appear on the client," says Michal Habdank-Kolaczkowski, director of communications for Waze. "We're trying to shorten it to a matter of 4 days — the idea is to make it real-time at some point."

Satellite imagery may prove to be even more difficult. Google has shown in the past that it can turn around refreshed satellite imagery quickly: the company posted comparison images of Fukushima and the surrounding Sendai area a day after a tsunami hit in March 2011. It’s not clear, however, if Apple is able to act with such haste. High profile errors, such as the clouds obscuring Colchester in England, have yet to be fixed, while blurry textures found in areas like Lancaster and Gloucester also still remain.

"The idea is to make [changes] real-time at some point."

Ultimately, Apple needs a stronger mapping team to tackle the fundamental problems with the service. It’s something the company has already recognized, with reports of Apple snatching up former employees of the Google Maps team to help improve the service. Browsing the corporate section of Apple’s job website paints a similar picture, with the company seeking a project manager for its maps operation in addition to 11 general maps software engineers that will tackle Flyover and navigation.

Faced with the current situation, Apple’s significant iOS 6 userbase is its greatest strength and weakness. On the one hand, even a fraction of the 100 million iOS 6 users could help to significantly improve the current maps situation thanks to crowdsourced data; on the other, there’s an undercurrent of dissatisfaction that could only grow larger if Apple fails to resolve issues in a timely fashion.

The company has the building blocks for what could turn into a viable alternative to Google Maps. Getting to that point, however, is a race against the clock: the current grumbling from early adopters could turn into a roar as the iPhone 5 grows its sales to tens of millions of users.