Why Apple Maps Sucked

Sohan Choudhury
Oct 15, 2019 · 10 min read

The Silicon Valley giant made a hasty U-turn with iOS 6, and the journey that has followed shows us what makes Apple, well, Apple.

Animated Apple Maps logo, showing a wrong turn.
Animated Apple Maps logo, showing a wrong turn.
Illustration by Rounak Bhunia.

The most beautiful, powerful mapping service ever

The summer of 2012 is wrapping up. Obama’s up for re-election, and Gangnam Style is dominating the internet. You’re on your way to work, bogged down as usual in heavy Manhattan traffic. Suddenly, a scene of horror comes into view. The Brooklyn Bridge has collapsed — no, melted — into the East River. Entire roads have been warped, cars and their passengers flattened. Oh, the humanity!

The warped and broken 3D render of the Brooklyn Bridge on the original Apple Maps.
The warped and broken 3D render of the Brooklyn Bridge on the original Apple Maps.
That’s not what a bridge should look like… right?

Similarly unfathomable scenes of armageddon played out across the world. Parts of Switzerland turned black and white. Cars sunk into the asphalt in Las Vegas. A black hole appeared in place of a river in Tennessee.

Was this it — the end of the world? Had the Mayans gotten it right?

Not quite. It was September 19th. Hundreds of millions of iPhone owners had set their devices to update to iOS 6 the night before. They awoke to the brand new Apple Maps app digitally desecrating much of the globe. Doomsday hadn’t befallen Earth just yet, but the same couldn’t be said for Apple.

Reports of bugs from dissatisfied customers quickly flooded the news. Beyond the horrifying sights of 3D satellite view, the new app presented users with inconsistent navigation, lackluster search results, and inaccurate placement of well-known landmarks.

The New York Times’ David Pogue put it bluntly:

“Maps is an appalling first release. It may be the most embarrassing, least usable piece of software Apple has ever released.”

Just a few months prior, such an outcome seemed impossible. In typical Apple fanfare, the company had been busy building hype around the new Maps app. At Apple’s flagship Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC), head of iOS Scott Forstall unveiled Apple Maps as “the most beautiful, powerful mapping service ever.”

Talk about over promising and under delivering. Releasing beta-quality software in a crucial area was far from the norm for Apple. Up until this point, the company had built a reputation for taking time in perfecting its products. Now, it was scrambling to salvage customer trust.

Five days after launching, just 4% of iOS 6 users continued to use Apple Maps. Within a week, $30 billion was slashed from the company’s market cap.

In order to understand how this colossal failure unfolded, let’s wind back the clock.

A rosy past

Steve Jobs and Eric Schmidt share the stage at the iPhone unveiling in 2007, both are happy.
Steve Jobs and Eric Schmidt share the stage at the iPhone unveiling in 2007, both are happy.
Schmidt (right), and Jobs. Just two cheerful friends, nothing to see here.

Steve Jobs’ aura hit a crescendo during the launch of the first ever iPhone in 2007. The CEO confidently towered over the audience as he unveiled a product that would go on to capture the public’s imagination and become the most successful product in the history of mankind. The landmark event cemented Jobs’ legacy as a relentless visionary, and Apple’s as an innovation powerhouse.

Sharing the stage with Jobs, however, was another figure: Google CEO Eric Schmidt. Jobs introduced Schmidt by saying, “You can’t think about the Internet without thinking about Google,” and Schmidt joked that the two companies would be merging into “Applegoo.”

The relationship between these two titans went beyond just camaraderie. Schmidt, who held a seat on Apple’s board, had been invited to the keynote to introduce Google Maps as the default mapping application on the new iPhone. This partnership represented a mutually beneficial relationship:

  • Google would gain millions of new users, which would serve to improve their Maps software that had been out for just two years, while
  • Apple would be able to release their flagship device with an industry-leading mapping app, thereby providing a significant value add for customers.
Google Maps on the Blackberry Curve
Google Maps on the Blackberry Curve
The Blackberry Curve’s mapping couldn’t hold a candle to the iPhone.

In short, Google Maps made the iPhone a lot better. iPhone owners had transit information of entire cities at their fingertips, and could easily search for nearby attractions such as parks and restaurants. Keep in mind that this all came at a time when alternative offerings from Nokia and Blackberry were notoriously poor.

Like a young couple madly in love, “Applegoo” entered its honeymoon phase.

Google Maps had started off as a beloved feature on iPhones, but over time became regarded as an essential functionality. This effect only compounded — as more and more people bought iPhones and used Google Maps, the software continued to improve. Surely, such a cycle of collective success indicated the two companies were meant to be.

As Apple and Google deepened their relationship, however, the saga started to turn sour.

Thermonuclear war

Nuclear explosion test footage.
Nuclear explosion test footage.

When the iPhone partnership had originally launched, Google’s core business model revolved around online advertising revenue. Extraneous endeavors, such as Google Maps, were created with the intent of increasing the company’s dominance on the web in general, and profits were not the primary concern.

This reliance on a single area wasn’t sustainable, and so the pressure was on for Google to diversify. Smartphone sales were growing exponentially, making the sector an obvious prospect for increased investment. Google had already been a player in the space — they had launched their mobile operating system, Android, back in 2008. Over time, however, an unavoidable conflict of interest was bubbling up.

On one hand, Google’s partnership with Apple was serving its intended purpose — Google Maps had been acclaimed as the premiere mapping software and was popular with hundreds of millions of users. At the same time, however, Android had become a promising revenue and growth stream for the ever-diversifying company.

Google Maps on the original iPhone.
Google Maps on the original iPhone.
Google Maps on the original iPhone.

Android directly competed with iOS, the very operating system that the Google Maps partnership was heavily benefitting.

The tides had changed, and Google had to act. The company asked for greater access to iPhone user data via the Google Maps app.

Unsurprisingly, this did not go down well with Apple. As a business with a bottom line, Apple could not afford to have a service critical to the functionality of their flagship product subject to the whims of an archrival. Letting Google have its way would set a precedent harmful to competition, especially in the cutthroat mobile arena.

Moreover, the intrinsic values that defined Apple’s products were at odds with Google’s. Over the years, the rift between the two companies — particularly in tenants of user data and privacy — had been magnified.

Google generally made wide use of user data, arguably at the expense of privacy, in order to improve their products. Apple, meanwhile, had historically held a more conservative, privacy-centered mindset.

Given this context, it becomes obvious how polarizing Google’s demand was. The issue became a source of deep philosophical discomfort within Apple.

And then Google dialed it up to 11.

The company refused to bring critical Google Maps features, such as voice-guided turn-by-turn navigation, to iOS.

The competitive advantage this gave to Android was clear as day, and the pushback from Apple was swift. Jobs, boiling with rage, sought retaliation. He told his biographer,

“I will spend my last dying breath if I need to, and I will spend every penny of Apple’s $40 billion in the bank, to right this wrong.

“I’m going to destroy Android… I’m willing to go thermonuclear war on this.”

Despite having a year left on its contract, Apple ditched Google Maps as its default mapping app. The “Applegoo” romance was officially dead.

No wrong turn

Scott Forstall unveiling Apple Maps during WWDC.
Scott Forstall unveiling Apple Maps during WWDC.
Head of iOS Scott Forstall was forced to resign after the Apple Maps flop.

Apple Maps was destined to fail — it was rushed in development and replaced a loved and mature product.

Following the fateful iOS 6 launch, CEO Tim Cook posted a public apology on Apple’s website. He stated he was “extremely sorry for the frustration” that users faced and recognized that the company “fell short on the commitment” of delivering the best experience to customers.

Apple’s official recommendation for disappointed iPhone users included downloading the Bing maps app.

Bing, seriously?!

What had this all been for?

The decision to divorce from Google may have helped Apple in a competitive business sense, but it came at a massive cost to user experience. It seemed that Apple had selfishly placed themselves above their customers.

In light of recent developments, however, a strong case can be made to the contrary. Ditching Google Maps for a homegrown solution tells us a lot about how Apple sees the future. It seems that the company has subscribed to two key mantras.

Picture of Apple Maps van with rig of LiDAR and cameras.
Picture of Apple Maps van with rig of LiDAR and cameras.
An example of an Apple Maps van. Note the slanted silver cylinders — there’s the precious LiDAR.

Mapping is important. In the years since 2012, Apple Maps has undergone a transformation. Apple has invested heavily in improving their core mapping tech with a clear focus on the long-term, as evidenced by a whopping nine acquisitions it has made in the space.

In recent versions of Apple Maps, the reliance on third-party mapping data from companies like TomTom has been fully eliminated, greatly improving accuracy. Apple now collects data independently thanks to pre-existing users as well as via a fleet of vans that have been spotted in 41 states.

Apple’s vans go further than the traditional camera and GPS systems. They each harbor four LiDAR arrays, perfect for collecting data for autonomous vehicle training. No comment on this from Apple, of course.

In an age of disruption in the transportation sector, mapping data is a hot commodity. This brings us to Apple’s core philosophy.

Apple privacy billboard, reads: What happens on your iPhone, stays on your iPhone.
Apple privacy billboard, reads: What happens on your iPhone, stays on your iPhone.
An Apple billboard looming over CES 2019.

Privacy is important. As discussed earlier, Apple has prided itself on protecting the privacy of its users. At the same time, however, elevating the accuracy and quality of navigation instructions requires massive amounts of sensitive data.

Google Maps was originally a better offering largely because of its much larger audience. Google’s service collects a lot of data. It tracks routes taken in order to improve navigation, travel time to provide live traffic data, and location history to better serve recommendations. This is all done in the name of enhancing the product and has become the norm for software services in recent years.

In order to reap these benefits without compromising on privacy, Apple has decided to segment and anonymize user data, as explained by SVP Eddy Cue.

“We specifically don’t collect data, even from point A to point B. We collect data — when we do it — in an anonymous fashion, in subsections of the whole, so we couldn’t even say that there is a person that went from point A to point B.”

Explanation of how user data is segmented and anonymized before use by Apple.
Explanation of how user data is segmented and anonymized before use by Apple.

The Apple Maps team holds strong to the belief that it can deliver a high-quality product in spite of not using directly personal data — a clear boon for consumers.

Today, thanks to consistent investment and a privacy-centered approach, Apple has lessened Google’s dominance in mapping. Apple Maps is now integrated with the privacy-centered search engine DuckDuckGo, defining it as the clear antithesis to Google Maps.

Considering these developments and Apple’s driving motivation, it’s clear that launching Apple Maps was no wrong turn, but rather a deliberate (albeit hasty) decision.

Bravo Apple?

Person holding an unlocked iPhone with various notifications.
Person holding an unlocked iPhone with various notifications.
The company believes that “privacy is a fundamental human right.” We better hope they’re serious.

While researching for this story, I found myself hung up on the same foundational question:

Who’s really protecting our privacy?

The traditional answer to a question of this nature would be the government, but does this hold true in the information age? Technology moves at a pace far beyond that of the legislation that applies to it. You could argue that some progress has been made as of late, such as with the GDPR, but aren’t these policies more reactionary than proactive?

When it comes to the issue of defining privacy on the internet, the landscape is still reminiscent of the Wild West. As new forms of information pop up, so do privacy exploits that can leave end users vulnerable. Ten years ago, who knew that something so personal as our location history would be widely collected by behemoth corporations with seemingly limitless reach?

Government institutions were not designed to protect our privacy in the modern sense. In major ways, they have even attempted to use consumer technology in order to undermine privacy. In a landmark case between the FBI and Apple, the Bureau repeatedly demanded that a backdoor be built to access sensitive iPhone data in criminal investigations.

With that case, which you can read more on here, Apple’s commitment to privacy prevailed. The company valiantly refused to break user trust and was lauded by consumer protection groups for the move.

Bravo Apple?

Sure. It’s clear that the company cares about privacy. Despite the undeniable short-term cost of ditching Google Maps, or the clear risk in defying an agency as powerful as the FBI, Apple chose to be different — even if that meant “thermonuclear war.”

These decisions mean we consumers today have better protections for our personal data, but this also highlights an inconvenient truth:

When it comes to the question of who defines user privacy protection, the answer may be more in the hands of Silicon Valley leaders than we may think.

As more and more of our deeply personal information enters the digital realm, we’ve got to ask ourselves whether this is an arrangement that we’re comfortable with.

So sure, for now we can say bravo to Apple — let’s just hope things stay that way.

Current render of the Brooklyn Bridge in 3D satellite view on Apple Maps.
Current render of the Brooklyn Bridge in 3D satellite view on Apple Maps.
Ah, much better.

And, on a less somber note, at least the Brooklyn bridge is no longer a twisted heap of metal sinking into the East River.

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