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.

iPhone 4S thoughts, part 1

A preamble: Given the current uncompetitive US cellular climate and relatively atrocious level of service provided by all of the major players, a major goal of mine remains minimizing the total dollars given to my cell provider. If this is a shared goal, the optimal time for cell phone replacement, on contract, at subsidized rates, is the first moment possible.

To clarify: Apple sells unlocked iPhones for $650. AT&T sells locked iPhones for $200. That means AT&T purchases iPhones at some rate slightly lower than $650 and subsidizes some amount less than $450 to each customer to entice them into a 2-year contract with a total value somewhere north of $2,000.

This means for every iPhone sold, AT&T pays Apple up front, and earns it back over time. When the subsidy has been recovered, usually between 18 and 24 months, AT&T begins offering its customers new phones at fully subsidized rates in exchange for signing a new contract.

Because the user’s monthly bill does not decline once their subsidy is paid off, AT&T’s profit increases immediately for every customer who continues to use their old phone after it is paid off.

Thus, to avoid paying AT&T any extra money, AT&T customers should upgrade immediately upon being able to receive a full subsidy again.

Hence, 16 months after standing in line for an iPhone 4 at launch day, I have an iPhone 4S.

Palm Pre 2 thoughts, part 2

Last of it’s kind, the Palm Pre 2 arrived in December at my office, unlocked, direct from HP.

I have been asked a dozen times why, happy with my iPhone 4, I purchased a Pre 2. The answer can be found here. It was not a joke, I firmly believed releasing unlocked hardware would help Palm. The fact that it took a near-collapse and subsequent assimilation by HP to push the new corporation (HPalm?) into releasing unlocked GSM hardware does not deter me. By all accounts the Pre 2 and webOS 2 were far superior to the originals, and I was eager. The results speak both to the Palm team’s successes and to the difficulty of their chosen task.

The Pre 2 is what I consider to be the best form factor possible. While I have gotten very comfortable typing on a touch screen over the last several years, the speed allowed by a hardware keyboard can never be equaled.  I do not mean the typing speed, though that may be true. I mean the speed of access. The iPhone has a single means of access: the screen. Although the display can function as a variety of inputs (keyboard, number pad, chooser list, etc.) the phone and OS must first be told which one of those to present.  With a single swipe left from the home screen every application, person, message, and web site is searchable. The key to that sentence is the beginning, “with a single swipe left from the home screen”. Without that gesture from that particular location, there is no search.

On the Pre 2, and any other device with hardware keyboard, search can simply be a function of beginning to type. Context for the display, from an unaccessed state, does not matter. On my iPhone 4 I often attempt to swipe left while in an app only to realize I have to first return to the home screen with a button press and then swipe left. Only after that is complete will I be able to start my search query.

Likewise, storing the hardware keyboard in portrait orientation, below the screen, is a fantastic fit. It means the phone can be all screen whenever possible. It also means that when the keyboard is extended the phone feels incredibly natural to hold. Landscape keyboards unbalance phones, making them unwieldy and heavy, impossible to hold in a single hand, let alone type on with one.

The Pre 2’s small screen size does not bother me after an hour or two. In fact it is the iPhone that feels large and strangely flat upon returning to it. This is a long way of saying the Pre 2 feels great in the hand and pocket, and is easy on the eyes.

However, the Pre 2 desperately needs a rotation lock. The hardware rotation lock on the iPad (prior to iOS 4.1 or post iOS 4.2) is a brilliant feature.  Turning the Pre 2 can be a surprisingly frustrating experience, because the sensor’s calibration and response speed lag slightly, meaning that one turns the phone to landscape (when reading a web site, for example), waits, returns it back to portrait and then to landscape again very quickly, and then watches as the phone performs all 3 transformations in a disjointed manner.  The odd “shake” of the phone to make the sensor adjust the screen that old (pre iOS 4.0) iPhone users knew is back with webOS.

There it is then: the Pre 2 is hardware I constantly want to touch. It looks good, it feels good, and using it is, mostly, absolutely wonderful. Every time I go back to it I’m happy, and every time I leave it I miss the small shape and the clicking keys.  WebOS is a delight to use, works as advertised and has a sense of motion and organization lacking from it’s competitors, Android and iOS.  It is a wonderful platform, and something I will watch further.

Why then do I constantly return to my iPhone 4?  There are two reasons, and they revolve around the same concept, something only my time with these two phones has made me understand.

Trust.

When I have to work on my phone, which is a more and more common occurance globally, I can’t hesitate. When I’m driving to a vendor’s office or a FedEx location I googled three minutes ago, when I’m trying to call someone from a restaurant, or when I’m looking for an email with pricing I got a month ago, I have to *know* that my phone will do what I want.

The Pre 2 and webOS are pretty, they multitask well, their notification system is achingly simple and wonderfully functional. And when I launch Google Maps it sometimes works.  Sometimes it sits pulsing at the launch screen for several minutes, until I use the wonderful card interface to go back to my email.  When I try to call someone from my bluetooth headset and realize that I have to find their information on the phone, because bluetooth voice dial, while listed as a feature for webOS 2.1, does not yet work on my Pre 2’s webOS 2.0.1, I miss my iPhone.

When I am going out for the afternoon and look at the battery meter on the Pre 2, it often reads 40%.  At 2 pm that is a worrisome thing, something that makes me think about my charger’s location and my ability to power the phone from my car’s USB socket.

The Pre 2 and HP’s new OS are wonderful things. But they do not inspire trust. Not yet. Battery life and responsiveness are two things I used not to consider critical with smartphones. They all had poor battery life and they all were a little slow to respond.  In that market the Pre 2 looks great, because the thought that went into webOS is clearly worlds above what went into most phone operating systems. That is not the current market.

I enjoy using the Pre 2, and wish I could do so more often.  I hope that webOS 2.1 brings better performance, fewer bugs, and bluetooth voice dialing, which is a deal breaker for my 45 minute commute.  Perhaps the Pre 3 will feature a more robust battery, and a more responsive mapping application. I hope so. I would love to be able to recommend webOS, to show my friends my phone and to have them be able to buy one, from HP unlocked, from T-Mobile, AT&T, Sprint, Verizon. I would like more people to see this carefully designed OS. I think that would be good for everyone.

Maybe this summer.

Until then I’ll admire my Pre 2 and use it, with my hand-cut SIM card adaptor, on days I don’t need to do a lot of work.

How Apple gets it right

I’ve been a Mac user for a long time.  The first Mac I owned was a Motorola StarMax beige tower, which means that I went off to college before the original iMac.  That’s before the time best known as Steve Jobs 2.

My dad, who I had to convince to buy me that Mac, now works on a MacBook Pro.  My roommate, who laughed at my computer and then used it to play Swoop, has been using Macs for almost a decade.

Bits, which is my place for the two things Bobert says I do best, has featured a lot of Apple ranting recently, and I am frequently asked why I stick with Apple if I don’t like their policies, or why I got a new iPhone if I hate AT&T.

The answer is simple: because every time they have the opportunity to influence my decision-making Apple does a wonderful job.

This doesn’t mean Apple is flawless. It also doesn’t mean I’m immune to competition, to news sites and friends, and to other products.  What it means is that when the ball is in Apple’s court they hit a home run.

I write this up today because today I took Tara’s iPad in to the Apple store in downtown SF.  The screen had some streaks on it that continued to re-appear after cleaning.  They looked as though the glue that holds the display in to the bezel was leaking slightly.  At first I thought they came from the glue used on the black plastic portion that houses the 3G antenna, but after a month we noticed them on the other end as well, around the home button.  They look like dirt or finger print oil, except that they originate at the black edge of the glass and streak inwards, on two sides.  After two months, we knew it was a defect, and I scheduled a Genius Bar appointment online.

I worked for several years in quality control in China. I am very aware of the realities of manufacturing defects and error rates. While it is sad to get a new product that has a defect, and while production processes can usually be improved, unless there’s a problem at a scale that warrants a recall, what matters is not the flaw, but how it’s handled.

The way we treat each other is key. What I am looking for from Apple and other companies is not products that never have problems, but companies that treat their customers well when problems are discovered.

This morning I walked in to the Apple store at 10:04 and checked in on the second level.  I waited on a bench for around five minutes for my name to be called, and then showed my Genius rep the iPad, screen off so that the streaks were immediately visible.  She took it, looked at them, asked the next Genius over if he thought wipes and alcohol would work, took it in the back and tried to clean it.  She was gone for three minutes.  When she came back she promptly told me she would replace it as cleaning it hadn’t worked.  She pulled out a new iPad, had me sign the paperwork, swapped SIM cards, wiped the old iPad, and we were done.  The total time was 25 minutes, most of which was spent activating the new iPad, wiping the old one, and swapping SIM cards.

I left the store completely happy and texted Tara to tell her the good news.

There’s no joy in finding a problem with something. Making an appointment, taking it in, being potentially without it for a few days or weeks, those are all unpleasant things. They are also almost impossible to avoid.  The only things a company can control are their products pre-sale and their treatment of their customers at all times.

To fix my problem Apple’s staff treated me kindly, listened to me respectfully, didn’t question my honesty or intelligence, and repaired the original flaw in the product promptly.

That’s why they keep getting my money.

iPhone 4 thoughts, part 4

I’ve now had my iPhone 4 for several weeks, and wanted to re-visit these thoughts, to see if I’d changed my mind on anything.

First, the iPhone 4 is pretty awesome. The display is gorgeous and battery life is much, much better.  The responsiveness of the camera has me using it all the time, and the ability to multi-task, even in limited ways, is great.

The rubber Bumper case is annoying, because it clings to the fabric on the inside of my pockets, which makes the phone hard to get in and out.  This leads to me not wanting to use it, which in turn means I will have to deal with the antenna issue and the fact that I spent $30 on the case.  Apple has just dealt with the $30 portion of that problem.

Under 4.0.1 I no longer ever have 5 bars in my house.  I live in San Francisco.  Coverage has not changed.  It’s good to have a better understanding of how poor AT&T is here, and I wish I had my phone configured to display -db, as the Anandtech people do.  I’ll look into that.

The antenna issue, whatever Steve Jobs, John Gruber, et al. say, is both real and a hardware flaw.  I have now spent quite a bit of time holding other people’s iPhones, as well as the demo units in the store.  I have found phones that will drop from 5 bars all the way into “Searching…” and I have found phones that, in the exact same location, will drop from 5 bars to 3 and no lower.  I do not see any way of telling them apart, other than holding multiple phones in the hand.  Note that, in order to truly tell, one must hold the phone for upwards of one minute.  In shorter amounts of time the phones look identical, as they will all drop roughly 2 bars.  Only after a longer time will some phones continue all the way down to no signal and the battery-destroying “Searching…” mode.

The proximity sensor issue is also real, but very, very tricky to diagnose or understand, as it seems to only happen after the sensor has been activated.  I have only had it happen one time, where a call ended surprisingly and I looked at the phone and realized the screen was on.  I don’t spend a lot of time on the phone, making only a few brief calls a day, and encountered the issue on a more lengthy call.  I suspect this is fixable in software.

The reflective clarity of the Apple logo on the back is amazing.

The iPod app is nicer now.  I don’t use it too often, though I am starting to as I grow less afraid of my battery, but the subtle interface changes, which mostly present more details on each screen, are much appreciated.

I love being able to see the percentage of battery remaining rather than simply the icon.  This has been possible since the 3GS, but is new to me.

My best usage time on the iPhone from 100% charged to shut down is 6 hours 34 minutes of usage and 38 hours 21 minutes of standby.  That, to me, was impressive.

And, on a very specific note for one person, let me say this: don’t put your phone in the same pocket with your keys.  That would be stupid.