Apple’s iPhone 5 sales appear to be rolling along as the handset receives high praise in most reviews — except for Maps. And as the drumbeat of criticism over Maps continues, some tech journalists wonder if this “fiasco” would have happened if Steve Jobs were still alive. The NY Times Joe Nocera calls Maps an “unmitigated disaster” and implies that Jobs would not have allowed the current Maps product to get out the door.
However we’ll never know the answer to that question. Jobs was a perfectionist but wasn’t perfect. He made his share of miscalculations and mistakes. The iPhone 4′s “antennagate” was an example of a significant technical and PR problem that occurred on Jobs’ watch.
Apple’s competitors, Samsung, Nokia and especially Google-owned Motorola are also getting in on the action — the “smartphone wars” lately have taken on the feeling of a political campaign — exploiting the episode for schadenfreude (e.g., #iLost) if not potential sales.
Problems Not the Same Everywhere
The problems of Apple Maps, though widely documented, do not appear to equally serious across all regions of the globe. I had a reporter last week say to me that Apple Maps in the San Francisco Bay Area was in better shape than other places. That seems right.
I live in the Bay Area and in my personal use of Apple Maps I haven’t seen the kinds of problems that others are complaining about. Indeed, I’ve been using Apple Maps as much as possible during my daily routine over the past 72 hours. Generally it has performed well and without any obvious problems. I had expected it to give me incorrect business locations and get me lost but so fair it hasn’t.
At the same time I’ve also been trying to compare local search on Apple Maps to local search on the Jelly Bean version of Android on the Galaxy Nexus. It can be said without much debate that currently Google offers a more complete local search experience. However I don’t find the gap to be quite as significant as others have argued. And if we include Siri’s expanded capabilities in the evaluation, there are several areas in which Apple arguably provides a better local experience than Google.
I conducted lots of searches for local business listings and compared the experiences in a number of categories: restaurants, retail stores, hotels and other local business headings. In addition I’ve been testing the navigation fairly extensively. As I mentioned, I’m “paranoid” but so far it hasn’t taken me off course.
I’m not going to discuss the results of each set of searches here (that would make this article exceedingly long). Instead I’ll provide my overall impressions and reproduce a few of side-by-side comparisons of Google local search with Apple Maps and Siri.
Restaurants: “Thai Restaurants South of Market”
I searched on the iPhone and Galaxy Nexus for “Thai restaurants south of market” street, San Fransisco. In doing so, however, I had a particular restaurant in mind: “Koh Samui & the Monkey” on Brannan Street.
I used voice search to query Google and received the following result, which didn’t yield the particular restaurant I was looking for. However I could simply touch the map and bring up a wider array of Thai restaurants in the immediate area. Then I did find it.
Once in the map I’m able to access the various “layers” and filters that Google Maps offers. There’s a wealth of information and search options in there. One might even say almost too many. Users can access profile information or conduct an entirely new search by local business category.
The Google Local “app” experience also exists within Android Maps. It enables browsing and sorting by criteria such as distance, rating, neighborhood and cuisine. These filters are very helpful and there’s nothing comparable in Apple Maps (though Apple partner Yelp provides this functionality in its app).
With Apple and iOS 6 there are basically two ways into this same restaurant information: a Siri voice search or a map search. Right now Apple’s local search isn’t very forgiving. Misspellings, for example, may yield “no results.” Lengthy spoken queries sometimes don’t translate into desired search results.
The query “Thai restaurants south of market street, San Fransisco” dropped a pin in the South of Market area but didn’t deliver any Thai restaurant results. Once the map was focused on the designated area, however, I simply queried “Thai restaurants.” That got me to a number of results including the specific restaurant I was looking for.
I was then able to dive into the restaurant profile with supporting content from Yelp (reviews, photos). Just as before (Apple Maps) I can get directions, though now they’re turn-by-turn.
While the app implies (with its icons) that public transit directions are available, as we know they are not. Users are taken to the App Store and given a list of public transportation apps to download. (Apple says it’s working on better integration of third party public transit apps.)
Interestingly, for this particular restaurant (Koh Samui & The Monkey) there was no ability to make a reservation from the Apple Maps profile page. Curiously, however, I could when I initiated the search through Siri.
For better or for worse a local search through Siri offers a very different experience than in Apple Maps. When I asked Siri about “Thai restaurants south of market,” I got a list of 15 results. They looked like this:
Siri shows you want amounts to a search engine results page and then focuses on the profile of the top result. It then asks if I want to “Call, get directions or skip to the next one.” From an individual profile page I can initiate a reservation (manually or verbally), which is a nice feature. If I say “make a reservation at 7pm” it will show me all the restaurants in my search result data set that have open tables at the desired time.
Unlike in Google, however, I have no ability to sort or re-rank the results by specific criteria (e.g., rating, price). And a particular pet peeve of mine: there’s no way for me to go back to these results once I exit or take some action (e.g., call the restaurant). I’m required to perform the search again. Apple Maps, however, does save your search history (as it did previously).
Overall, the Apple UI is more polished and less cluttered than Google’s. If the comparison is limited to the pure map experience (sans Siri), Google offers more options and delivers a better overall experience. Google is also generally better and more useful for category searches. If you’re looking for a specific restaurant location Apple Maps does fine.
If Siri is part of the comparison, however, then the iPhone 5 can do some things that Google cannot (especially in the car). For example, Siri enables users to speak a query, choose a restaurant and complete a reservation in a single activity sequence.
Movies: “What’s Playing in San Francisco?”
Entertainment is another high volume local search category. And I approached looking for a movie in two different ways. The first query was very basic, “movies, San Francisco.” Here, Apple Maps and Google Maps offered a comparable experience. Both delivered movie theater locations. The same is true if you ask for “movies, zip code.”
If you’re really looking for a specific movie or to see “what’s playing” these results don’t help that much. However on Google you can “scroll up” on the SERP and get beyond the specialized local results to see the more conventional PC-like search results, which do show you the movies playing in your area.
Google will also deliver the same type of results (as immediately above) if you say “What movies are playing in San Francisco?” You can also get nearby movie results by saying “What movies are playing?”
Apple Maps doesn’t show you any movie listings, only movie theater locations. However if you search with Siri you can get a range of movie information, including showtimes and trailers. Siri is also somewhat more flexible than Google when it comes to formulating queries.
You don’t need to specify “movies” to receive movie listings. You can ask Siri, “What’s playing in San Francisco?” or “What’s playing nearby” and get movie listings. You can ask about a specific movie title and get listings, which is a bit more hit and miss on Google. For example, the query “Where is The Master playing?” delivering a result on Google about The Masters golf tournament. Siri understood I was looking for a place to see the current film.
However Google does get most queries of these right, especially if you’re a bit more explicit about the fact that you’re seeking a movie listing.
Siri Offers “The Best of Both Worlds”
In iOS 6 Apple has broadened out what Siri can do. Among other things it can now launch apps, get sports scores and schedules, make restaurant reservations (as mentioned), and get turn-by-turn directions, which is where all this began.
In those instances where Siri doesn’t have a structured answer it will now sometimes automatically execute a web search. My kids were asking how much of “The Sound of Music” was a true story. I asked Siri to “Tell me about the Sound of Music” to see what would happen and was surprised to get a “one box” Google result. In the past it would have paused and asked whether I wanted to “search the web for The Sound of Music.” However, I was unable to find a consistent way to trigger this sort of automatic web search without saying “search the web for . . .”
As I mentioned above, if this were a comparison of pure mapping products I would say Apple has created something beautiful but Google is still quite a bit more useful. But when Siri and its structured data are factored into the equation it’s much more of an even contest.
In a way Siri gives you the best of both worlds, by providing “answers” and defaulting to web search when it cannot. Thus you can use Siri as a smart front end on top of Google. (If you must have Google local search results you can use the Google search app or the Google+ Local app on the iPhone as well — and now launch them with Siri.)
Not that many people currently use Siri for web search or functions beyond a few basics (calls, texts, email). However with its expanded capabilities and broader range of answers — together with LTE and a faster processor — more people will likely be doing more searches (and local searches in particular) with Siri on the iPhone.
In contrast to the dismal assessments of Apple Maps that you’ve been reading, I actually don’t believe that when it comes to local search Apple is as far behind as people imagine.