How Bad Is Apple’s iOS6 Maps Disaster?

Updated 10:13 a.m. EDT, Friday, September 21

Call it karma, call it a comeuppance, call it what you will: The Apple Mapocalypse has come. After kicking Google Maps off its new mobile operating system for the iPhone and iPad, iOS 6, Apple is receiving massive backlash from users around the globe, who report that Apple’s replacement maps, “Apple Maps,” are riddled with strange glitches, inaccurate direction and location data, and fall short of Google Maps.

Apple launched iOS 6, an upgrade for all iPad generations from the iPad 2 onward and all iPhone models from the 3GS and newer, on Wednesday to mostly rave reviews. Users can download it wirelessly from their iDevices by simply navigating to the “Settings: General: Software Update” menus.

But within hours, complaints about the new Apple Maps came pouring in online. So far, they appear to mostly be affecting users outside of the U.S., but complaints from U.S. users are picking up.

The BBC chronicled common complains from UK Apple mobile device users, including missing entries for entire towns, incorrectly placed locations, incorrect locations given for simple queries, satellite imagery obscured by clouds and more.

The iOS 6 Apple Maps for Japan and China were also plagued with various issues of their own, such as low detail in Japan and duplicated Senkaku islands, which are disputed territory by the two nations, the blog TechInAsia reported.

Tech blogger Michael DeGusta, a data whiz, used Apple’s own availability chart to chronicle all of the Google Maps features that Apple users in 77 countries are now missing out on if and when they upgrade to iOS 6, features including public transit directions, realtime traffic congestion information, and 3D buildings in navigation.

As DeGusta writes:

In total, 63 countries with a combined population of 5 billion people will be without one or more of these features they previously had in iOS. Apple is risking upsetting 70% of the world’s population1, seemingly without much greater purpose than speeding the removal of their rival Google from iOS. Few consumers care about such battles though, nor should they have to…

Based on past data2, it’s likely that at least 200 million users will upgrade to iOS 6 in the next two weeks. Even if only 1 in 10 people are upset by these changes, Apple will have 20 million unhappy customers on their hands, roughly equivalent to the entire population of Australia.

The backlash was also reflected on social media, where Twitter accounts (“@iOS6maps” and “@fake_iOS6maps“) satirizing the disastrous new product have sprung up (only to get briefly suspended and reactivated, much to the ire of some). Other Twitter users simply complained about how the maps misled them, in some cases risking users health and safety.

A Tumblr dedicated to sharing screenshots of the glitches, errors and generally poor experience in iOS 6 was also launched under the banner “The Amazing iOS 6 Maps.

Apple’s using a long list of partners for its map data in various countries, but the main two appear to be Dutch GPS company TomTom and OpenStreetMap, a free crowdsourced world map that has also been the go-to refuge of other companies looking to flee Google Maps over the past year, including Wikipedia, Foursquare and Craigslist.

On Thursday, OpenStreetMap foundation board member Richard Fairhurst took to Twitter to defend his organization’s data set:

“Screen-grabs I’ve seen thus far suggest that UK and US are TomTom data,” Fairhurst tweeted, later adding “The stuff people are complaining about (generally US/UK mapping) isn’t our data.”

Fairhurst also tweeted: ” I’ve only seen the reviews, but I suspect, in particular, Apple are discovering quite how difficult geocoding is…”

Another company that made its way into Apple’s Map data set, Waze, also openly criticized TomTom for the botched Apple Maps location data, with Waze CEO Noam Bardin telling Business Insider:

“Apple went out and partnered with the weakest player…They’re now coming out with the lowest, weakest data set and they’re competing against Google, which has the highest data set.”

TomTom, for its part, pointed the finger of blame at Apple, with a spokesperson telling the BBC:

“The user experience is determined by adding additional features to the map application such as visual imagery….User experience fully depends on the choices these manufacturers make…We are confident about our map quality, as selling 65 million portable navigation devices across the world and more than 1.4m TomTom apps for iPhone in the past two years reaffirms this quality.”

Whoever’s to blame for the resulting poor geo guidance provided by Apple Maps (it should be noted the buck ultimately stops with Apple, which is notoriously strict about controlling the experiences on its products), competitors are already attempting to capitalize on the controversy.

Finnish phonemaker Nokia, which just launched its new Lumia 920 and 820 Windows Phone 8 smartphones openly targeting the new iPhone 5, took to its official blog to advertise the superior quality of its digital mapping and location services.

As Nokia’s Pino Bonetti wrote:

Unlike our competitors, which are financing their location assets with advertising or licensing mapping content from third parties, we completely own, build and distribute mapping content, platform and apps.

In other words, we truly understand that maps and location-based apps must be accurate, provide the best quality and be accessible basically anywhere. That’s been standard practice at Nokia for the past six years, and we also understand that “pretty” isn’t enough. You expect excellence in your smartphone mapping experience.

OpenStreetMap, too, used its Twitter account Thursday to steer users to other apps that use OSM data primarily, which it said were better than Apple Maps.

Reached Thursday by phone, OpenStreetMap U.S. chapter president Richard Welty told TPM he hadn’t had time to dig into the Apple Maps controversy, but noted most digital maps of at least the U.S. share many of the same problems, being derived principally from the U.S. Census Bureau’s Topologically Integrated Geographic Encoding and Referencing (TIGER) data set.

“To some degree, everybody’s digital maps have problems,” Welty told TPM. “Depending on where they are, they have more of a problem or less of a problem.”

Welty noted that his wife had a TomTom GPS with which she was happy.

Intriguingly, Google appears to be the one company that has yet to take advantage of the situation: It hasn’t released a stand-alone Google Maps app for Apple device users, despite earlier saying it would and despite releasing a standalone YouTube app to get around Apple’s recent deletion of that default app from the iPhone and iPad. Asked directly bout a standalone Google Maps app by SearchEngineLand, Google provided an ambiguous response not saying when it could be expected.

Still, if the reports of an overall poor and frustrating Apple Maps experience have deterred any users from downloading and upgrading to iOS 6, it’s not showing up yet: Since iOS 6 was released on Wednesday, it caused a massive surge in iTunes and Mac App Store Web traffic data as users rushed to download it, according to The Better Broadband Blog.

Late update: Several Google executives have made statements on Thursday explaining how iPhone and iPad users can access Google Maps on their devices through a work-around, by pinning a link to Google Maps mobile site as an icon on an Apple device’s screen.

To be clear, Apple device users always had the option of using Google Maps through its mobile website, by going to “maps.google.com” on Apple’s mobile Safari browser, but this is not an ideal solution for those looking to switch back, as it cannot be made into the default map for an Apple device and all of the third-party apps will still pull up the iOS 6 Apple Maps for their location data.

Second late update: Apple spokesperson Trudy Muller provided Apple’s official response to the Apple Maps issues reported by customers late Thursday, providing the following statement to All Things D :

“Customers around the world are upgrading to iOS 6 with over 200 new features including Apple Maps, our first map service,” spokeswoman Trudy Muller told AllThingsD. “We are excited to offer this service with innovative new features like Flyover and Siri integration, and free turn by turn navigation. We launched this new map service knowing that it is a major initiative and we are just getting started with it. We are continuously improving it, and as Maps is a cloud-based solution, the more people use it, the better it will get. We’re also working with developers to integrate some of the amazing transit apps in the App Store into iOS Maps. We appreciate all of the customer feedback and are working hard to make the customer experience even better.”

All Things D further reported that sources within Apple said the company’s maps division was working furiously and singularly to fix the issues, though no specific timeline for issuing fixes was given.

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