John Gruber is a Smart Guy (Or, Maps)

John Gruber, on May 11th, 2012:

Here’s the thing. Apple’s homegrown mapping data has to be great.

Mapping is an essential phone feature. It’s one of those few features that almost everyone with an iPhone uses, and often relies upon. That’s why Apple has to do their own — they need to control essential technology. I suspect Apple would be pushing to do their own maps even if their relationship with Google were still hunky-dory, as it was circa 2007. (Remember Eric Schmidt coming on stage during the iPhone introduction?) But as things actually stand today between Apple and Google, relying on Google for mapping services is simply untenable.

This is a high-pressure switch for Apple. Regressions will not be acceptable. The purported whiz-bang 3D view stuff might be great, but users are going to have pitchforks and torches in hand if practical stuff like driving and walking directions are less accurate than they were with Google’s data. Keep in mind too, that Android phones ship with turn-by-turn navigation.

In iOS 6, Apple shipped a Maps app that has regressed. It is far from the greatness it has to be. No surprise, users got their pitchforks and torches out. All of this is, by now, old news.

What is surprising is the number of Maps defenders that have risen. Kontra resorts to misleading screenshots to argue that, hey, Google Maps SUX 2! Jean-Louise Gassee seems to think the issue is largely one of messaging, not of substance. Aaron Mahnke admonishes users and critics for their “sense of entitlement”.

They’re all wrong. (The May 2012) Gruber is right.

The issue here is not one of messaging, but of substance. The Maps app is important because it is an essential phone feature, a feature that almost everyone uses. Insofar as users have expectations, it’s shaped by how much they’ve come to rely on the app in their daily lives. What is bad about the new Maps app is how much it disrupts those everyday uses. (Public transit comes to mind, especially.) These users are entitled — to a product that they bought to help them with these daily functions. Their criticisms are not ones from a position of privilege, but a position of desperation. It is because Maps is so essential that it — in Gruber’s own words — has to be great. Anything short of that counts as a failure. And as Tim Cook acknowledges, Apple has failed us users with its new Maps 1.0.

One last thing: features and versions. I’ve said before that OS versions are themselves rather meaningless. There is no point to talking about how many iOS users are on the latest version and how many Android users are not. What matters are the features that a user has access to. The Maps situation is a case in point. The Android user has had turn-by-turn since, what, version 2? On the other hand, the iOS user who upgraded from 5 to 6 may have “caught up” to the latest version, but also lost out on some useful features, like transit, in the process. Maybe that loss is offset by other feature gains. But, to make that argument is to acknowledge — as we should — that versions don’t matter, and features do.

Feel free to talk to me on Twitter: @RagingTBolt.

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