Missed in the Apple Maps consensus

In all of the discussion about errors committed during the development and launch of Apple Maps, the most important shortcoming has systematically been omitted. Let me explain.

When I switched to iOS from Android at the beginning of this year, I was immediately struck by the absence of navigation. In an attempt to address this, I went and purchased every single nav app in the market, one-by-one, and attempted to emulate the simple workflow that Android had afforded me for nearly a year. I failed. I got refunds for most of the apps. The reason wasn’t the map data. It was the search.

What every single third-party navigation app shares on the iOS platform is not inferior map data but, rather, a consistently inferior search process. Even Bing, the supposed competitor to Google, comes nowhere close to dealing with multiple spellings of place names, roads, business names, and the like, in the way that Google already seems to. I suspect the reason for this massive difference is that Google has applied its search indexing technology to maps, and adaptively adjusts results to commonly accepted outcomes. Google is probably literally crowdsourcing geolocation keywords based upon user behaviour after the search has taken place — in much the same way that it does with web. Low (non-existent?) transactional cost to feedback is the key to improving any keyword index system. Given this probable methodology, even the most ridiculously inaccurate map information could eventually be turned into something useful.

In the beginning of mobile maps, Google was the only game in town, and it has turned this trove of captive behavioural data into a stunningly effective search database. So effective, that the only process that comes close to Android Search+Nav right now (on iOS 5), is a jailbreak tweak that allows search within Google and invokation a third-party navigation tool with spoon-fed coordinates.

I recently had the displeasure of walking my young kids (and non-too-pleased wife) an extra 3 miles to eat a late supper at a Tunisian restaurant “just down the street”, having been given the wrong geolocation for a very specific address by Yelp! — Google informed me of the error when I asked it a few blocks into the trek. I understand that this flaw is the most immediate that Apple must deal with, and fast. But this problem is peanuts when stacked against the reality that Apple is not a search company, it has never done effective keyword search, and is probably several server farms, and two new platforms away from even attempting to beat Google at its own game.

Good luck Apple. You might do better forking that cash over to Google than burning it in your, suddenly expanded, empire of “Forstall” furnaces.

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