Apple Maps' Poor Performance Gives Users Incentive to Find Alternatives

NEWS ANALYSIS: Apple’s vaunted mapping app in iOS 6 turns out to be a dud that can lead users astray. Fortunately, there are other options, either for the iPhone 5 or for other smartphones.  

I’m pondering a map of Washington, DC, looking for the Washington Monument. For those of you who aren’t from here, it’s that tall, pointy obelisk at the end of the National Mall. But if you believe Apple’s map app for iOS 6, the location of perhaps the most famous point of interest in the U.S. is actually located south of Independence Avenue, along the Potomac River. That’s not where it really is.

In defense of Apple, the Washington Monument was affected significantly by the earthquake that struck the East Coast on August 23, 2011. In fact, the earthquake did so much damage that the monument has been closed ever since. But despite the damage, the monument was not uprooted from its former location to a new spot by the river. What’s even stranger is that if you look at the satellite view provided by Apple maps, you can see the actual monument located where it’s always been in a circle at the end of the National Mall.

If this were the only problem with Apple’s map program for the iPhone and the iPad, it wouldn’t be a big deal. But in reality, it’s just the one closest to my office. Reports ranging from missing rail stations, phantom airports, and at least for a while, the relocation of Berlin, Germany to the South Pole are being reported (gleefully, it seems) in the “Amazing iOS 6 Maps” blog on Tumblr.

Some of the Apple maps weirder features include the 3D view of U.S. highway 93 as it crosses the Colorado River downstream from Hoover Dam. There, the highway descends straight down the side of the canyon, fords the river, and climbs up the opposite side. The old way of driving across the dam itself seemed a little more practical. Of course the reality is that there’s a new bridge for the highway, but in the 3D view, somebody forgot to let Apple’s mapmakers in on that little secret.

I could go on, but I’ll avoid a catalog of the failings of Apple maps for iOS. The question is what do you do about it? There are several options, some of which include keeping your device, upgrading to iOS 6, and getting maps that reflect the real world. But unfortunately, you can’t undo Apple’s elimination of Google’s Maps app. That’s gone for now.

But Google Earth is still available, and if you want to look up points of interest, they’re all still there. The bridge over the Colorado River downstream from Hoover Dam doesn’t require you to careen over the edge of the canyon wall. And the Washington Monument isn’t down by the riverside. Instead it’s been mysteriously moved so that it’s squarely in the middle if the intersection of 15th St. NW and Madison Drive NE in Washington, DC. It’s not really located there, either, but at least you can see the real thing from there.

If you want to navigate, then you have plenty of options. My favorite is Telenav GPS Plus. But if you go to Apple’s app store, you have plenty of choices, all of which seem to be more reliable than Apple’s mapping program. Clearly, Apple’s goof with the maps will be good for navigation app makers.

It may also be good for other device makers. Nokia’s Lumia 900 showed off the company’s excellence in mapping, but its earlier Lumia 710, which features Nokia Drive was even better, mostly because T-Mobile kept the native Nokia software, while AT&T, which sells the Lumia 900 substituted its own navigation program. When the Nokia Lumia 920 comes out in October with the launch of Windows Phone 8, it’s supposed to feature Nokia’s navigation suite.

But suppose you’ve already bought an iPhone 5? Never fear – Nokia has thought of that as well. The company explains in its blog how to use Nokia’s mapping software on your iOS device. In fact, Nokia’s mapping program works with any device including iPhone, iPad and Android. Sadly, it doesn’t seem to work properly on BlackBerry OS 7.1’s browser.

Or you can wait. Google is already working on a version of Google Maps for the Apple app store, and eventually Apple will probably update its maps. Because Apple uses the cloud to store its map data, you won’t even need an update to the mapping software on your iPhone or iPad when Apple gets around to fixing it. The fixes to the weird mapping features will simply appear when you ask for a point of interest again—hopefully.

Nokia’s mapping software also has some other advantages. Most notably it works without a connection to the cloud. Nokia phones can store their mapping data on the phone itself, which means if you travel outside a coverage area, you can still navigate. I tried this feature with Nokia Drive, and it works well.

It’s enough to make you question why you should use your phone for navigation. With Apple’s maps in their current state, you shouldn’t. Not only can the navigation feature lead you seriously astray, but Apple’s navigation only works for driving. When Apple dumped Google Maps, it also dumped mass transit navigation and it dumped walking. Fortunately, there’s an app for that—just not from Apple.

Wayne Rash

Wayne Rash

Wayne Rash is a freelance writer and editor with a 35 year history covering technology. He’s a frequent speaker on business, technology issues and enterprise computing. He covers Washington and...