Is Apple Maps still the laughing stock of maps apps? [Friday Night Fights]


Is Apple Maps your first choice?
Photo: Ste Smith/Cult of Mac

The release of Apple Maps with iOS 6 was so disastrous it led to the firing of Scott Forstall, former SVP of iOS, and to a rare public apology from CEO Tim Cook.

Friday Night Fights bug Almost four years on, Maps is in a very different place. Apple has worked hard to iron out the kinks and add new features that help the service compete with rivals like Google Maps. But is Apple Maps still the laughing stock of maps apps?

Join us in this week’s Friday Night Fights as we battle it out over the state of Apple Maps.

Luke Dormehl FNFLuke Dormehl: Let’s start with the obvious point, Killian: Apple Maps was an embarrassment when it launched. It became a LOLApple punchline for people who thought that way, resulted in the departure of Scott Forstall, and turned cities into surrealist monstrosities that invited folks to drive across airport taxiways (seriously!).

But like your first-date sales pitch, people shouldn’t be put off forever by their initial feelings of revulsion. In fact, not only has Apple Maps gotten a whole lot better: I’d say a serious case can be made that it’s one of the best map apps around.

Here’s what I dig about Apple Maps. For starters, it’s easy to access. No one wants to be fiddling around with their iPhone looking for directions while they’re behind the wheel. Maps makes it easy to get turn-by-turn navigation from your lockscreen. Handoff, meanwhile, makes it straightforward to transfer directions from your Mac to your iPhone, while the ability to use Apple Maps on your Apple Watch is also incredibly useful.

Google beat Apple to offering transit information and traffic updates, but Apple does them now — and well. Furthermore, its information on looking up local businesses, like a mini-Yelp inside your mapping app, is actually a whole lot better than Google’s own offering. On top of all this, iOS 10 is making things even better: with a cleaner interface, nifty detour feature in case you need to stop and fill up your car or yourself, and more third-party integration.

Plus, it does all this without the fears people have about Google hoovering up your data for its possibly nefarious purposes.

Am I saying Apple Maps is perfect? No. But nor is any other mapping app. What I am saying, though, is that people who haven’t used it since its disastrous first few months really ought to revisit it. And the LOLApple crowd (which may or may not include yourself) really need to find a new meme when it comes to Apple botches.

Killian Bell FNFKillian Bell: Listen, I’m not going to sit here and pretend Apple Maps is terrible, because it’s not. It was, but things have changed. It is immensely more accurate now, and it does integrate into iOS a whole lot better than third-party maps apps can. But I don’t think it has shaken its embarrassing image just yet.

Apple Maps still isn’t perfect. It still has its teething troubles, and from time to time, it still gets users into a mess. For instance, just this month, Apple finally corrected the name of Westheimer Road, one of Houston’s busiest thoroughfares, which had been labeled “Waterwall Drive” for several months.

It isn’t easy to forget an Apple fiasco. Everyone thinks of antennagate when they think of the iPhone 4. Everyone thinks of bendgate when they think about the iPhone 6 Plus. So I think Maps will long be the butt of many jokes, even after the remaining kinks are ironed out. As a result of that, I think many will continue to use alternatives.

Obviously the biggest and best alternative is Google Maps, which millions of people rely on because of its unmatched accuracy and reliability. It doesn’t have a feature like Flyover — which is a very nice feature — but it still beats Apple at transit directions and a lot more. It also has a much better reputation.

I give Apple Maps another shot from time to time, and I appreciate how much it has improved. I’m also looking forward to the new features coming in iOS 10. But if I’m ever in an unfamiliar place, I feel much more comfortable asking Google Maps to guide me home.

Luke Dormehl FNFLuke: So you’re basically saying that once a disappointing product comes out there’s nothing that can be done about it? I don’t think I need to point out what’s wrong with that statement, do I? Yes, Apple Maps got a lot of flack when it came out, but there was so much fuss made about it precisely because Apple gets so much right first time. Negative PR situations like the antennagate you mentioned certainly were mistakes on Apple’s part, but they weren’t the kind of business-ruining nightmare some people seem to think they were.

When Apple Maps came out, Apple immediately took steps to rectify what had happened: getting rid of the folks responsible, investing money and other resources to improve the service, and — in the meantime — taking the unprecedented step of recommending, in the short term, that Apple users went with another rival app for the first few weeks while the issues were being rectified. As we found out this week, it went even further than that: the fact that we now have public betas of macOS and iOS is directly the result of Maps’ failure — with the rationale being that opening Apple’s software up to more testers outside the cozy West Coast-centric developer circles would allow problems like this to be spotted much earlier.

I’ll be honest: I don’t really know what you’re arguing. Do you want Apple to abandon Maps because it got it wrong the first time around? Almost certainly not. What I’m saying is that Apple has taken every possible step to improve the service since then, and it’s paid off. You may be sticking with Google Maps (unsurprising as a longtime Fandroid, I might add!), but the people using Apple Maps because it’s the default app aren’t getting a noticeably worse service than you are.

In fact, in a lot of ways they’re getting a more seamless one.

Killian Bell FNFKillian: No, that’s not what I’m saying at all. You’re blowing it out of proportion. But this debate is about whether Maps has overcome its disastrous phase and shaken its original image of being a laughing stock, and what I’m saying is, I don’t think it has just yet.

Apple certainly did the right things to fix Maps — and it’s great that good things have come from this, like the public betas — but most would argue that it should have never shipped in the first place in such a state. Apple was so obsessed with getting Google Maps off the iPhone that it shipped a terrible product, and its users suffered in the end. That’s not like Apple.

Of course I’m not saying Apple should abandon Maps. I just stated it’s not a terrible product, and that it has some terrific features. But Google was way ahead of Apple with all of this stuff (except Flyover) and that continues to be the case. I think it will be for a long time, simply because Google has been investing a lot more in mapping for a lot longer.

Apple still has catching up to do. Right now, Maps is mostly a rip off of Google Maps, and although it’s a very good one, it’s still not as good. If you want the best experience — one you can trust every single time — you use Google Maps.

Luke Dormehl FNFLuke: I think a lot of this is a case of wait and see. Apple’s opening an increasing number of offices dedicated entirely to improving Maps, it’s filed some interesting patents such as the idea of more human-like Siri Map directions (i.e. “Turn right at the fountain and continue down the road until you reach the bank”), and — as even you point out — features like Flyover are exclusive to Apple. With the company having deployed mapping vehicles for further improving the service, I don’t think Apple is content to just pull an Android and copy its forerunners, either.

If anything, the occasional slip-up like Maps is good. It proves that not everything Apple touches turns to gold first time around (and its criticism from loyal fans shows that Apple’s popularity isn’t mindless adulation), which pushes Apple to improve the service — not just for the reason it improves all of its services, but because it needs to overcome that negative perception.

But let’s turn this over to readers? Which mapping service do you use? Do you think Apple is still suffering the after effects of Maps’ disastrous 2012 launch? Does Killian make a good point about Android leading when it comes to map innovation? Leave your comments below. And have a great weekend!

Friday Night Fights is a series of weekly death matches between two no-mercy brawlers who will fight to the death — or at least agree to disagree — about which is better: Apple or Google, iOS or Android?