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iPhone 5 may be great, but Maps app a beautiful bust so far

The new 3D Flyover feature lets you fly virtual cameraround many major cities checking out streets buildings gredetail from almost

The new 3D Flyover feature lets you fly a virtual camera around many major cities, checking out streets and buildings at great detail from almost any angle. This view of the Sun-Times building was synthesized completely from Apple's flyover data.

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Updated: October 24, 2012 6:47AM



During the keynote in which Apple showed off the iPhone for the first time, Steve Jobs famously teased the audience by promising to unveil three new devices: a phone, an iPod, and an internet communicator. He could have added a fourth product to that gag: a GPS device. There are days in every iPhone owner’s life in which its three most important features are Location, Location, Location.

In fact, with each passing year the iPhone’s ability to make and receive phone calls looks a little more like the DVD drive in the MacBook Pro. I almost never use it, its presence seems a little bit archaic, and if Apple ever removed that part of the hardware to make the unit thinner and lighter, I’d wonder what took them so long. If the movie “Sophie’s Choice” had been about me having to choose to save either the Phone app or the Maps app from oblivion, the drama would have been over and done with before the title card faded out.

Alas, we all can’t be beautiful and mysterious Polish immigrants played by Meryl Streep. In iOS 6, Apple has removed the iPhone’s original built-in Maps app and replaced it with a brand-new one that doesn’t use Google services. The new app doesn’t benefit from Google’s accurate maps, its comprehensive database of local points of interest, or its navigation services that can route you from anywhere to anywhere with “Walk right over there and wait for the bus that’s arriving in exactly three minutes” precision.

Apple’s tried to fill the resulting hole by buying up some mapping companies and entering into partnerships with others (such as TomTom and Yelp).

iOS 6.0’s new Maps app’s has two major new features: turn-by-turn navigation and 3D flyover maps of major cities. Both of these work great, and they add plenty of value to the iPhone. Unfortunately, the routine mapping features that iOS users have come to know, trust, and rely on have become seriously squirrelly without Google. It’s bad enough to make some users worry that they ought to stick to iOS 5 until the whole mess sorts itself out.

Let’s start with the good stuff.

iOS 6’s new free turn-by-turn navigation system is designed exactly as a “preloaded on your new phone” navigation system ought to be. Its primary feature is clarity. This is the prettiest and least-cluttered navigator I’ve ever used on a phone. Every frame is a great piece of graphic design, and it looks as though a good deal of the app’s intelligence is devoted to deciding what not to put on the screen. It’s a perfect rearview mirror of navigation. Your eyes flick over to it, your brain processes the information (gonna wanna turn right onto Commonwealth Avenue in 4.2 miles; the road kind of tails off to the left), and then your eyes are right back on the road.

That’s a killer feature (or should I say: a “no killing whatsoever”) feature in a car navigation app. The only price you pay for this simplicity is the wide range of features and conveniences you’d find in a good commercial app like Navigon or Motion-X Drive. iOS 6 Maps doesn’t even have a big fat “Go Home” button.

I tested Maps over about 200 miles of local and long-distance driving and found that it was very good at selecting routes. My sole complaint is that if I missed (or intentionally chose not to take) the turn that the app advised, it would get a little OCD on me. It kept barking at me to make U-turns and circle around through residential neighborhoods for mile after mile before accepting that the road I was on was actually one of the alternative routes the app had originally proposed. It was just a bit annoying.

(But Maps uses Siri as its voice. Sweet, calm, clear, pleasant Siri. How could I possibly stay mad at Siri?)

Maps presents you with multiple alternate routes before you start driving, and it does take traffic into consideration. I ran Maps side-by-side with the free Waze app (based on up-to-the-minute crowdsourced data) and the Navigation app on an Android phone. I wish iOS 6’s traffic info were more fine-grained. On the map, it doesn’t communicate much more than “cars are moving kind of slowly along this big stretch of the highway.” Google Navigation points out that it’s actually just a few isolated slowdowns, and Waze tells me that a major accident at this specific intersection was reported by two fellow Waze users just ten minutes ago.

iOS 6 Maps isn’t as agile as the Android version of Google Maps Navigation or Waze Both of those apps rerouted me around a spot of trouble that Maps blithely wanted me to drive right into. But it’s a perfectly fine app.

It’s also a very “Apple” app: it’s tightly integrated into the whole iPhone experience. When you switch over to the Music app, Maps collapses into a “call in progress”-style notification at the top of the screen, so your next direction is always in plain view. When you wake the phone from sleep, you’ll find that the lock screen shows you your next step. That’s an elegant little time-saver when you’re walking.

The new 3D Flyover feature is a killer demo, it’s fun to play with, and it’s manifestly useful in the real world. On a normal Friday, I’m content with two of those three things.

Apple (or its minions) has been sending squadrons of aircraft all over the planet to produce detailed 3D maps of major cities. The planes criss-cross the area and produce detailed views of every block from every angle, collecting volumes of imagery and data. The result is a video game-style 3D environment of the city which reproduces streets, buildings, and features in high detail and at near-photographic quality. You can freely travel through this environment and via multitouch gestures that move you through the city, change your elevation, and rotate you around a point of interest.

On an iPhone screen, the feature is functional. On the big screen of a Retina-quality iPad, 3D Maps is completely immersive and it’s almost compulsive. Honest to God: it’s like there’s an edition of Grand Theft Auto set in this city, and you’ve flying around in a stolen traffic helicopter. You would expect to see 3D versions of the city’s most famous buildings, and yup, they’re all there. But Flyover covers everything, block after block. There’s enough detail to see 3D cars and monuments, and sunbathers in Boston Common. The McKim Building of the Boston Public Library includes a small courtyard that’s open to the sky and surrounded on all four sides by several stories. I might have expected the courtyard to be artificially capped off but no: you can peer inside and see the fountain and move around and view all four of the interior faces of the building that encloses it.

I can spend hours playing Virtual Tourist. There’s a slight lag on a 4G connection as Maps loads in mounds of photographic texture data. With a WiFi or LTE connection to the Internet, the experience is utterly fluid.

3D Flyovers isn’t just there for fun. It’s a godsend if you’re legitimately trying to find a destination. A half an hour of fruitless and frustrating walking in an unfamiliar area is replaced by a few minutes flying around in a personal helicopter. The app delivers a sense of spatial awareness of the area that sticks in your brain, too. 3D Maps is total glorious Win.

And the bad . . .

And now, sadly, it’s time for me to take the tone of the room down a bit. Apple’s points of interest database is so incomplete and so inaccurate that many of iOS 6 Maps’ most useful features are completely unreliable.

Its map database isn’t perfect either. But if you plug in a street address, you can pretty much count on Maps taking you to the actual corresponding map location, via streets that probably actually exist. Just don’t ask it to find a location without an address. There’s an excellent chance that it’s either never heard of the place, or it’ll take you to the wrong location entirely. And if you’ve asked Siri to advise you on the location of the nearest post office or sandwich shop, thank her for the information but then check it carefully on a satellite map while she isn’t looking.

Time and time again over the past few days, Maps screwed up on me. I asked it to navigate me to a Panera Bread I know of in a specific town. Maps tried to send me to a different Panera miles and miles away, because that was the nearest one that it was aware of. I idly scrolled through a neighborhood with Maps’ satellite imagery enabled, and discovered to my great surprise that a small home on a tiny lot is actually a Kohls superstore, according to Maps’ POI label.

I drove myself to the Panera that Maps didn’t think existed. It’s at the edge of a big suburban mall. When I got there, I saw the problem: Maps was aware of the existence of the blotch of real estate occupied by The Walpole Mall, but it had no idea that it contained any of those, whaddyacallem . . . oh, right: “stores and restaurants.”

I pulled out an Android tablet and sure enough, Google Maps had lots of data. It had a map of the parking lot. As I zoomed in, it revealed POI data for almost every restaurant, and many of the stores as well.

Jeez.

Maps’ POI problem infects the whole experience. Siri is wired into Maps, and can also activate navigation, but what good is she if she sends me off to the middle of nowhere?

Hmm . . .

Excuse me a moment . . .

. . .

Okay: Maps does indeed know about the “Middle Of Nowhere Diner.” Which seems a tad ironic.

Maps’ POI database isn’t a total wash. Maps is plugged into Yelp, so any restaurant or business that’s on Yelp will probably turn up in a search. But reliability is key. For now, you just can’t trust Maps.

Note that carefully.

At the same time, keep in mind that building a brand-new Maps app without help from the best POI database is a monumental undertaking, and Maps has only been available for three days. The app itself is lovely. The POI database is trouble, but that’s way off on a server. Apple and its partners can keep fixing and augmenting it day after day and week after week as more people use the service.

Here at the end of its first week, I consider Maps’ POI problems to be an embarrassment. If the problem persists to Halloween, then I’ll think of Maps as a failure. And if Apple doesn’t turn Maps around and make it into a reliable, trustworthy resource by the end of the year, then I’ll consider it a fatality. Maps will be moved to a cot in Apple’s windowless attic, where they keep Ping and the iPod HiFi.

Maps’ other big downgrade is in its limited range of directions. It doesn’t know anything about public transportation. The navigation page has a tab for that, just as the iOS 5 version did, but all it does is launch a third-party app (chosen, purchased, and installed by you) that delivers that feature. Most of these apps are city-specific, too; you’ll need to make more choices and more purchases frequently as you travel.

It’s not uncommon to be in a location where a cell signal is good enough for little bursts of data (such as navigation information) but not strong enough to download a big app. So with iOS 6.0 Maps, it’s very important to collect the software you need ahead of time, while you still have strong WiFi.

This has been a harsh criticism of some of iOS 6 Maps’ features. Deservedly so. Still, I can’t end this column without reminding you that this is indeed the debut of a brand new mapping service. The only way that Maps could have worked heroically well straight out of the gate would have been if Apple had simply stolen Google Maps and welded in a clean VIN plate. It’s going to get better, I’m sure.

Solutions

What can you do, until it does? You don’t have do without Google’s full POI database or their public transportation and bike route features. Google’s web-based Maps app works just fine on the iPhone (

maps.google.com

).

And there have been rumblings that Google has already written their own Google Maps app for iOS and submitted it to the iTunes Store for Apple’s approval. This story is unconfirmed by me, but it syncs up with some things I’ve heard over the past couple of years.

You’ll have to do something, that’s for sure. iOS 6 Maps isn’t like a third-party app. You can’t choose to continue to use the old version until there’s another new version that isn’t as squirrelly. You either install all of the new features of iOS 6 or you install none of them . . . and I sure don’t think the problems with Maps are so horrible (or without recourse) that they’re worth turning your back on iOS 6 entirely. I wish Maps were better but I don’t wish I hadn’t upgraded my personal iPhone.

The stakes for Apple are pretty high with this new edition of Maps. For a couple of years now, Android’s best-in-class baked-in navigation tools have been its one inarguable advantage over iOS. iOS 6 Maps is, alas, a step backward, not forward.

Nonetheless, the overall form and clarity of the Maps app, plus its tight integration into the rest of the iPhone experience, is ample reason to settle into your seats and hang in there for the late innings of this game. What good would the world’s best POI database be if it were hooked up to an ugly and frustrating app that spits in your face every time you use it?

The strengths of the Maps app are the kinds of things you can’t buy. But you can buy a better POI database. And keep in mind that Apple has roughly enough cash on hand to send its entire executive team, plus all of the managers from each of its U.S. Apple Stores, on a corporate retreat to the International Space Station.

Yes, I know: each of these 2500 or so people would have to go up one at a time, which would complicate the team-building exercises. The point is that Apple has a good track record for making things work, and they have the checkbook and the patience required to keep improving Maps until it’s fixed.



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