Apple And Its Questionable Decision With Maps

Disclaimer: I have not installed iOS 6 and so the following is written based on whatever knowledge is publicly available. Spot an inaccuracy? Report it here!

Last week Apple announced the next version of their mobile devices operating system, iOS 6, in which a brand new, wholly Apple-made Maps application will surface, replacing the previous app which used maps powered by Google Maps. Whether this change is caused by the ongoing rivalries between Apple and Google, Apple’s general tendency to “own the full stack” of a product and its experience, or something else altogether, I don’t know. I suspect the real answer is “all of the above”, but it’s not what I want to focus on. 

I want to focus on the new way Apple Maps handles public transport. In the current and previous versions, Maps used Google’s public transit features, which is driven by Google themselves keeping track of the whole world’s public transport systems, schedules, everything. Apple chose not to go down that route, of duplicating Google’s effort wholesale. Instead, Apple decided to let developers fill that void on their own. 

At this point it is worth reading Andy Baio’s piece, Busting the iOS 6 Transit Map Myths, as it debunks a good number of misunderstandings that people have after Apple’s announcements.But it also highlights the one big question that is left unanswered, by anyone: what will Apple actually do to help facilitate the needs of its customers that use public transport?  Apple’s solution is an API that developers can use to register an app they create themselves, to be provided to people when they want public transport directions for the geographic region that the public transport organization provides its services to. Meaning, the onus has suddenly been shifted to every public transport organization in the world, regardless of their ability (or available infrastructure) to support these users’ needs.

This poses three problems:

1. Public transport organizations come in all kinds; some are efficient and operate things well, others are not. Some are government-run, some are privatized. Some are profitable, some lose tremendous amounts of money. As you can imagine, their ability to deliver a good, usable app that appropriately addresses the needs of customers will vary. Greatly. Apple is absolving themselves from responsibility over any poor experience iOS customers may have in the future, being able to simply say “well that authority should just make a better app.”

2. Good experiences cost money to make, and what we’re already seeing in the market today is that great transit apps often cost a couple of dollars. Will that continue to be the case, or will Apple mandate that apps must be free if they are to register for the new Maps app registry? In case of the latter, will those apps become littered with ads? What monetary incentive do third parties have to create a great public transport app to compete with the mediocre offering of the transit authority itself? If they charge, will iOS customers get upset that Apple is now forcing them to buy apps just to get what they previously got for free?

3. Google went through great pains and effort to get public transit information into their Maps application for cities all around the world. They weren’t complete in their efforts, as far as I could tell, but close enough, which is incredibly commendable. Apple is hoping (expecting?) that people will fill in these massive gaps they are creating with this new iOS 6 Maps app, and over time they probably will. But “over time” could easily mean a period of multiple years—hardly the kind of wait Apple would want to inflict upon their customers.

All things considered, I understand Apple’s move away from Google Maps, and I think the new Maps app does have a lot of great new features and experiences built into it. I’m just worried by the seemingly car-centric thinking behind it, or if not thinking, prioritizing. Public transport is already under-valued in the U.S., a problem that furthers a host of other problems—environmental, societal, infrastructural, economical—and Apple’s new Maps app is looking like it may make it even harder for people to use PT for the foreseeable future.

Once iOS 6 is released and we can all get a better look at what kind of apps will be made available via the new “Transit App Store” (not an official name), it’ll be very worthwhile for me to revisit this post. I hope to be pleasantly surprised, but I expect the opposite; and that’s a first for an Apple product in a long, long time.

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