Apple is having a rare pratfall with a key product, the Maps application in the latest iteration of iOS, the operating system that makes iPhones, iPads and iPods do their stuff. The failure has raised lots of questions, and here's a brief attempt at making sense of some of them. Feel free to chip in with further thoughts and explanations in the comments.
Q: What happened?
A: With the iOS6 update, Apple replaced the existing Google Maps application with its own.
Q: Apple's allowed to do that. Why does it matter?
A: The new Maps app in iOS6 is pretty useless compared to the previous Google Maps one. For example, it doesn't have important thoroughfares such as the Victoria Park Tunnel in Auckland, there are roads marked that don't exist in real life, many shops, facilities and businesses are displayed in the wrong places, the satellite imagery is blurry and unclear and there's no public transport information.
Those are just a few of the problems in the new Maps app; more examples in our story here.
Q: How important is the new Maps fiasco?
A: Compared to everything else that's happening in the world, it's pretty minor. The new iPhone 5 is selling in record numbers and investors in Apple certainly are unfazed about the Maps fiasco, keeping the share price over US$700.
Consumers, for whom navigation and mapping has become a key reason for spending big bucks on an iPhone, are disappointed and annoyed at the downgrade however.
Some of the errors are comical, and there are plenty of fun sites to browse for them, such as The Amazing iOS6 Maps Tumblr.
On a more serious note, there are safety concerns around the new Maps. A search in Auckland for "hospital" found only the Navy Hospital in Stanley Bay, Devonport. Not only is this hospital out of the way for most people, it is not a public one with an emergency ward.
A search for "police" fared better, with several stations listed. The new Maps app inexplicably failed to show the Auckland Central Police Station on Cook and Vincent Streets.
Another example comes from the Irish Minister of Justice, Alan Shatter, who called one error "dangerously misleading" after Maps wrongly located Dublin airport at a farm in Dundrum, six miles outside the capital.
Q: Which Maps app is the best then?
A: No mapping and navigation software is totally reliable, but some are better than others: in the above safety test, an Android phone with Google Maps listed the public hospitals correctly and so did the Nokia Maps and both of these offered clinic locations too.
However, Bing Maps on Windows Phone 7.5 had a meltdown and suggested hospitals in Uruguay, Spain, and Ireland after locating the device in Auckland with the GPS.
If your destination is important and unfamiliar, use at least two Maps apps to make sure you get there.
Q: Will Apple fix this?
A: Apparently so. However, Apple says for that to happen "the more people who use it, the better it will get."
Apple uses data from OpenStreetMap, a crowd-sourced mapping project. The data however is old, around two years, according to Jonathan Bennett, a British journalist and developer who has been involved with the OpenStreetMap project since 2006 and it remains to be seen if Apple can source the up-to-date information required to make Maps more accurate.
Q: If the new Maps app is so poor, why did Apple switch to it?
A: Apple and Google are no longer on friendly terms with each other, thanks in main to their rivalry on the mobile front. Don't expect Apple to renew its agreement with Google and allow the search engine's Maps back into iOS6 in other words. You can still, however, use maps.google.co.nz in Safari and share a bookmark to the i-Device home screen.
Given the rivalry with Google, the switch to what is clearly an inferior core component of iOS isn't that surprising.
What is surprising however is that it took until 2012 for Apple to switch. Map apps are important for both users and for Apple's earnings, but they are difficult to do and take a long time to get right.
This time around, Apple, which normally leads the pack, starts from a long way behind: Nokia begun its Maps project in 2001 and Google bought Sydney-based Where 2 Technologies in 2004 which in turn became Google Maps.