Viewpoint: Why Apple Had To Release Its Terrible Maps App Now

Recently, Apple released its Maps app, to much criticism. More recently, Forbes wrote an article on “Why Apple Had to Release Its Terrible Maps App Now.” 

Now, our Technology Manager gives his perspective: 

It is easy to speculate why Apple released a half-baked Map application:

It was widely reported that the map was a last-minute addition to the original iPhone. Google added turn-by-turn navigation and vector-based mapping as special, free features for the Android platform. Google probably wanted more prominent branding and to collect more iOS usage data. Google also probably tried to use the map as part of the bargaining chip to get a favorite crossing deal with Apple.

I’ve been using the iOS map for many months as an Apple iOS developer. Apple’s problem is much deeper. On the surface, many people see it as a big data problem: Apple had a hard time reconciling the large amount of data from hundreds of different sources. Apple’s biggest weakness (and Google’s biggest strength) is understanding user intent in a search.

For example, if you search “Chinese Buffet” on the iPhone, instead of finding all nearby Chinese restaurants that offered a buffet, it only finds restaurants with the name that includes “Chinese Buffet.” With a Google search, if you have a typo in your search term, Google will suggest a search result with the correct spelling. If you type “Dormerwindow,” Google knows you meant “Dormer Window.”

For Apple to improve its Map app, Apple needs to buy or build a search engine. Today, there are two search engines: Google and Bing and neither one is for sale. Both Google and Bing became good search engines by continuously collecting usage data.  Yahoo used to make its own search engines, but it is now powered by Bing. Google still holds the crown in search volumes not only because it is perceived to be the best, it also collect the most user data. Bing’s map and searches are still an UI/UX disaster. For example, Bing still includes points of interest that have been closed for 20 years. Apple’s best bet would be to shop for start-ups or regional niche companies and team up with universities on research, and keep collecting user data like Google and Bing.  It won’t be easy and it will be a long term endeavor for Apple.