Developers: We warned Apple about iOS maps quality

App developers say they gave Apple plenty of warning about issues with its iOS maps app revamp.

Apple's Maps app on an iPhone 5.
Apple's Maps app on an iPhone 5. Sarah Tew/CNET

To the casual observer it might appear that Apple was caught off guard by just how bad its in-house maps app was. But the company had plenty of warning.

Developers have been complaining about Apple's Maps since shortly after they were given the first pre-release version in early June, CNET has learned. They say they filed bug requests, sent e-mails to specific Apple employees, and vented on message boards only other developers and Apple could see.

"I posted at least one doomsayer rant after each (developer) beta, and I wasn't alone," a developer with three iOS apps in the App Store told CNET. "The mood amongst the developers seemed to be that the maps were so shockingly bad that reporting individual problems was futile. What was needed wasn't so much an interface for reporting a single point as incorrect, but for selecting an entire region and saying 'all of this -- it's wrong.'"

All of the half dozen developers with whom CNET spoke -- each of whom have applications that rely on Apple's maps technology -- requested that their names and the names of their applications be kept out of this story because of ongoing relationships with the company. But they say the issues were well-documented among developers, who used four pre-release versions of the software before it was given to the public last month.

Apple declined to comment.

Threads on Apple's developer forums described some of the problems that appeared well ahead of the final version of the software, and they still existed when Apple shipped it, these people said. That includes mixed up locations, clouds in satellite imagery, and maps that were less detailed than the ones offered by rival Google, which provided the mapping technology until iOS 6.

"During the beta period I filed bug reports with Apple's Radar system (notorious for being ignored), posted on the forums several times, and e-mailed multiple people within Apple's MapKit team to voice our concerns," another developer told CNET.

One Apple employee did, in fact, get back to that person who complained, saying that the issue was "well understood," but that there was no news to report on mapping updates. They added that the developer was following the correct procedures for filing their complaints. Nonetheless, the developer told CNET there had been no updates to the bug reports, or extra information on how to deal with issues that were cropping up in apps, leaving them without answers.

"This has been a frustrating experience for us and we don't care where the imagery comes from, we just would like our customers to be able to have the same experience within our app when they update from iOS 5 to iOS 6," the developer added. "Instead, the OS upgrade broke some of the features we built within our application despite being told that only the imagery would be swapped out."

Differences in highway exits between Google Maps and Apple's iOS 6 Maps.
Differences in highway exits between Google Maps and Apple's iOS 6 Maps. James Martin/CNET

New maps
Apple's change to its own mapping technology were first publicly detailed at the company's annual developers conference in June. It's since been reported that the move was due to a breakdown in negotiations between the two companies, where Google wanted more control and branding of the app, while Apple wanted Google to bring key features like spoken turn-by-turn directions.

Some of the developers CNET spoke to said they didn't fault Apple for wanting to build and control its own software, but lamented that it was seemingly rushed out the door before some of the issues were fixed.

"I think if Apple really wanted to go down this path, then they should have given themselves a year to get everything right," said a developer who makes an application that lets users bookmark locations. "In that time, they could have offered their own maps as the default, but allowed users and developers the option to use Google Maps as an alternative."

What happened instead was that Apple pushed its own software out, with the only alternative to get Google's maps through the browser, where certain features are missing. Google is now rumored to be scrambling to get a standalone maps app replacement ready to go by the end of the year, and is adding new features to its Web app in the meantime.

New work
In an apology two weeks ago, Apple CEO Tim Cook promised improvements while urging users towards alternatives, saying "the more our customers use our Maps the better it will get."

In the meantime, the changeover has been harder for developers to escape. The built-in maps are part of Apple's iOS software developer kit, requiring extra work, and sometimes expense to use alternatives and workarounds inside their applications.

Two developers CNET spoke with said they were at work on changes to their applications to make use of mapping information from Google and Microsoft to offer as an alternative to Apple's built-in solution. A large reason for that was customer response, one of the developers said, adding that more than a third of his support queries since the launch of iOS 6 have been about downgrading back to iOS 5.

"I don't have a great answer unless [customers] did certain technical procedures before upgrading to 6, of which most people don't do those or jailbreak their phone," the developer added. "I would prefer to spend my time on improving something instead of dealing with problems like this. An option would have been nice."

An option is just what another developer said he was working on inside his travel-focused application. While he's still using Apple's maps for showing users search results, he's building in a way to hop out to the Web-based version of Google maps when it comes to helping people drive to those locations.

Others have put together off-the-shelf tools for other developers to use, including a project called GoogleMapsOverlayiOS that replaces Apple's maps with map tiles from Google using a solution that originally tapped the Open Street Maps project.

"I heard a lot of people from countries like (the) U.K, that maps are not good enough in their cities, it's huge problem for people who already have some app in appStore [sic] that's based on Google maps and Google maps API," creator Mladjan Antic says on the project's landing page.

New York's Statue of Liberty, a 3D landmark that was added to maps after iOS 6 was released.
New York's Statue of Liberty, a 3D landmark that was added to maps after iOS 6 was released. CNET

Improvements
For all the doom and gloom, developers say there has been some noticeable improvement with Apple's maps since the product became public. Chief among them: how far users can zoom in on a map, an important consideration for any app that makes use mapping imagery.

Developers say that when the first beta version of iOS 6 was released, the satellite images developers could use could only be zoomed to 17, whereas in iOS 5 it was 19. To put that in perspective, it's like seeing the one-third of the Notre-Dame cathedral in Paris, versus the whole thing while looking at it from above. This week Apple bumped it up to 18 for developers, and 19 within its own maps app. That ends up being a critical distance for apps that used imagery for measurement, or for precise location tracking, one developer said.

Last week consumers also noticed improvements to some locations , including added 3D views, more recent satellite imagery, and fixes to search results. Apple did not put out any official mention or benchmark on how many changes were made, although in its apology note it pledged to "keep working non-stop" on the product.

For developers, as for iPhone users, the improvements can't come fast enough.

 

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