Apple Maps, China, and iOS 8

Since iOS 6, Apple Maps has always displayed different mapping information for China depending on the user’s location. In China, Maps displayed data from AutoNavi, which was quite good but tile based rather than vector based. Users outside of China see very bad (incomplete) vector maps similar to Apple’s US information, though with such low quality that cities, rivers, and other basic geographical features are missing, making the maps unusable.

In iOS 8, Apple claimed they were delivering better China maps, including vector-based design. They did this, and the maps are much better. Geographical features, locations, cities, roads are all rendered quite well, or at least quite well in my limited testing (Beijing, Shanghai, Changsha, Dongguan/Shenzhen, and a couple other cities). Unfortunately, these maps display strange data for the rest of the world. Hong Kong, for example, has good mapping info when viewed from the US or Hong Kong, but horrible data when viewed from within China. San Francisco’s data, viewed from within China, is much worse than when viewed from the US.

Below is an example of Lujiazui in Shanghai in iOS 8, served from China. My earlier post, here, shows what the maps look like when viewed from outside of China.

Unfortunately, users outside of China see the same awful maps as before. For example Shanghai has no river, and the area between Shenzhen and Guangzhou is a blank section of map. Most of China is a blank section of map, including urban areas.

So here’s my question. How do we get Apple to serve us the best maps for each location, regardless of where the request comes from? I work in China frequently, and live in the US, and would like the best info for both. I’m sure others would as well, and unifying the maps would definitely make Apple’s Maps more competitive with Google, which serves better info for both places regardless of the request’s origination point.

Apple Maps and Shanghai

Apple’s new Maps are bad. That seems like a statement of fact. Unfortunately, in the United States they are most frequently described as “passable”, which is altogether too generous. Most people do not live in the United States.

Rather than a long diatribe about how international users are important, I thought I’d present some examples, from a city I know well. Per Wikipedia, Shanghai is a city of 23 million people as of 2010. Sorting by actual municipalities, that makes it the largest single city in the world. On that list New York is 19th.

So how does Shanghai look on Apple Maps in iOS 6? And how did it look on Google Maps on iOS 5?

Well, from the default zoom level in Apple Maps:

Default zoom, Apple

And Google:

Default zoom, Google

Zoom in 1 step on Apple:

Zoom in 1 step, Apple

And Google:

Zoom in 1 step, Google

Zoom in 2 steps, Apple:

Zoom in 2 steps, Apple

And Google:

Zoom in 2 steps, Google

Not only does Apple lack roads, parks, train lines, major buildings, districts, and any semblance of a “sense of the city” normally apparent from a map, it lacks the river.

To reiterate: it does not show the Yellow River, the Huang Pu, a major geographical feature of the entire coast, not just Shanghai proper.

The new maps fail in the kind of way that should be impossible to fail: they lack publicly available data. City maps of Shanghai are much more accurate and correctly detailed. Geographic features are visible from satellite.

For the US-only user, these new maps may be passable. For the international traveler or those residing in non-US countries, these maps are disaster, and a true regression in device utility. Quite simply, they represent a reason to buy an Android device over a new iPhone.

Which is quite a software update.