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.

iOS 7 wishes, part 1

Monday’s Apple keynote will reveal iOS 7. Many are hoping for big fixes, a total Ives-led overhaul. Not me. Sure, I’d like a much better sharing system, a looser grasp on default apps, and a faster update speed to the cloud-based Maps/Siri. But those are wishes, and I like to ask for specifics.

I’d like to see 3 annoyances fixed. That’s all. Here’s the first:

image

Open Messages in airplane mode but with Wifi on, and this alert appears. Not only is it annoying, it’s not true. Messages works on wifi, like so:

image

And it gets worse. Lock the phone, unlock, and re-open Messages:

image

Same alert. Not only is it not true, but it appears every time Messages is opened after locking the phone. And, of course, Messages still works over wifi:

image

All I’d really like from Apple in iOS 7 is an improved attention to detail. Strange to say, for a company famous for it.

A letter to Apple part 1, iTunes Match

I have a smart playlist that is called 2012” and, as you might have guessed, contains songs released in 2012.

I have iTunes Match.

It appears as though I can simply download that playlist to my iPhone to have all the songs I own that were released in 2012 on my iPhone.

This action does not work. That’s because the playlist, when viewed through Music on my phone, contains 300 songs. Here are some questions:

Why? I don’t know.

Does it contain only songs released in 2012? No it does not.

What does it contain? A random sample of my library.

Random how? Random in that I can not figure out any thing those songs have in common.

Were they released in the same year? No they were not.

Are they by the same artist? No they are not.

Are the songs in the playlist on my iPhone the same as the songs in the playlist in iTunes on my Mac? No they are not.

What do we call this? An example of how poorly iTunes Match handles multiple devices.

What else might we call this? A broken service.

Broken how? Broken in that it does most emphatically not just work.

Why is that important? Because that’s what Apple is famous for.

Why is Apple famous for that? Because before attempting such complicated internet-related-things like Siri, Maps, and iTunes Match, Apple’s combination of software and hardware often just worked” in a way that its competitors could not match.

Why was this good? Because it made people purchase Apple hardware.

What has happened in the interim? Well, much like my problem with iTunes Match, no one knows.

Why is this? Because there is no feedback to the user, no master control list, and no way to resolve the problem.

Why is this? No one knows. But it sucks.

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.

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.

iPhone 4 thoughts, part 3

My iPhone 4 says 16 GB on the box.  Under Settings > General > About it says Capacity 14.0 GB with 2.8 GB listed as available.  I checked all of the display models at the Apple store today, and they all reported the same 14.0 GB, as did my first iPhone 4.

Does this mean that the OS is taking up 2 GB?  Or that the 16 GB are actually 14 GB when formatted?  Or some combination of the two?  Strange, because my old iPhone 3G, also running iOS 4, also sold in box as a 16 GB model, currently shows a capacity of 14.5 GB.

The old phone lacks a lot of features such as multitasking, yet half a gigabyte seems like a lot. If you’ve seen anything different or have any explanation let me know.

iPhone 4 thoughts, part 2

This morning as I was using my iPhone 4 with Bumper on in a room that normally has poor signal strength I noticed the signal dropping.  I was on wifi as well, so connectivity was fine, of course, but the bars declined in the same manner as yesterday when held without Bumper on.

I shifted the Bumper and the bars returned.  This means that, in areas where signal strength was, with the iPhone 3G, questionable, the iPhone 4 antennas are more vulnerable to the bridging interference than in strong coverage areas.  This corresponds with findings posted by others.

I then removed the bumper and the problem was easily reproducible by holding the phone in my left hand in all areas of the house, regardless of coverage strength.  I’d been debating heading back to the Apple store, and this pushed me over the edge.  I got on the bus.

When I got to Stonestown Galleria, having not used the phone at all on the cold bus ride (this is San Francisco), the problem wasn’t initially apparent.  I sat in the food court for ten minutes, debating what to do and holding the phone with full 3G signal.  I’ll note for others that when I say holding the phone” I mean lightly, not some death grip, and in a very, very standard way, not in any special fashion. My hands are not and were not wet.

After about ten minutes, while I was trying to come up with a way to explain this bug to the Apple store staff, the bars started dropping.  Note that the Galleria is much warmer than the outdoors, so I believe the antennas are more vulnerable to interference and detuning at warmer temperatures.

I went to the Apple store and demonstrated the problem to the first staffer I found.  He referred me to the Genius Bar, made me a walk-in appointment, and asked me to wait. I did, and while doing so tested the phones in the display area.  None of them dropped immediately but I did not hold any for more than a few moments, as I was trying to test them all. During this time I was not holding my iPhone 4.

When the Genius called me I explained the problem and he asked if I could show him. I pulled out the phone (sans-Bumper) and held it lightly.  The bars began to fade.  He said that this was the first time he’d seen it, and asked to try.  When either of us let go of the phone the bars come back, and when he held the phone the bars dropped.

He was impressed, and said that after hearing about the problem he’d tried to reproduce it, but hadn’t been able to on the display models.  I told him I’d tried and failed also.  He took the phone and ran tests, including restoring it from DFU mode. He also got me a new phone.

After restoring it the phone did not immediately demonstrate the problem, but once we’d held it for a few minutes the bars began to drop again, until the phone lost signal and began searching for a network.  I should note here that the Apple store has excellent AT&T coverage.

He said they’d send my old phone off to engineering, and they were excited to have one with a reproducible problem.  He and another staffer set up my new phone and activated it, and asked if I wanted to try it before leaving. I said yes, and held the phone. Having been synced with iTunes moments before it was already warm and bars began immediately dropping.  Both Apple store staff reproduced the problem with the new phone.

At this point I was very relieved to know that it wasn’t just me, or just my phone. Strange, but the fact that it’s widespread, or at least _more widely spread_ is comforting.  The Genius who’d been helping me then said that they think it’s either a firmware or a design issue, and that there wasn’t anything else he could really do, because they had to find a solution internally, and that they were learning as they went.  He was very polite and genuinely interested in solving the problem.

I said I understood and that I’d take the new phone home, and he told me to swing back by if it became a more serious problem.  He then said the most interesting thing:

I tried to reproduce the problem on the display units, but I definitely didn’t hold them for as long as we’ve held this one.”

Me neither,” I said.

Now I know how it works though,” he said, I’m glad to see it.”

The phone is awesome, and I’m glad to have it.  The Bumper seems to make the problem almost disappear.  However, the problem is both real and reproducible, and affects more than just one unit.  If you’re not seeing this, that’s wonderful, but it’s something I’d test for if I were going to buy an iPhone 4.  It’s not a deal-breaker, but it’s big enough of a problem that a) Apple should give out free Bumpers and b) you want to know if your phone does it in case there’s a widely-issued fix or recall.

iPhone 4 thoughts, part 1

It is very odd to hold a device that is glass on both sides. Without looking the direction it is facing isn’t apparent.  Also, coming from the 3G, it feels very, very slick.  So did the iPad initially, and the constant fear of dropping that has ebbed with familiarity.

The much-discussed problem whereby holding the phone in the left hand so as to bridge the antenna gap causes the signal to gradually degrade and disappear on 3G is definitely real and immediately obvious. If you are buying a phone in store as opposed to delivery this is something you should be checking for.  Hold the phone for 15 seconds with your palm over the gap while it is on (which requires in-store activation).  Hopefully there is a fix, but I assume that it is a hardware problem, as only some phones seem to exhibit it. The rubber Apple Bumper case fixes this, which lends more credence to it being a hardware problem, as the case is non-conductive.

[Update] This problem is not 100% reproducible. I just sat in the car and held the phone, sans-case, in my left hand and the signal did not drop. Returned to house, took case off, and the signal drops immediately when held in left hand as noted above. Could this depend on signal interference as well, such as the wifi network in my house? Will report further. [/Update]

The screen is very, very good. Almost bizarrely clear, as some text, noticeably in the Messaging app, looks far different than it did on older generations of iPhone.

The camera shutter speed is astonishingly fast… for a phone.

Call volume is startlingly loud.  This means nothing for call quality, which I haven’t tested in any serious way.

It’s still an iPhone.

That was a long line.

The iPhone 4 conundrum

I currently have an iPhone 3G. After two years of daily use it is definitely worse for the wear, with cracks in the plastic casing and dust stuck under the screen. The battery is also failing, resulting in a standard 2 hours of usage. For those curious, the cracks occur between the holes in the plastic (for volume rocker, sleep/wake button, sim tray, screws, 30-pin connector, and speakers) and the metal edge to the front of the phone. These cracks grow over time, and multiply.

Of course I’ve dropped it. I list these things as facts rather than as points of failure. In the past ten years I’ve had a number of phones. Not one survived two years without showing the wear. This is one of the reasons I take mugshots (via dailymugshot.com), to see if the wear is as visible on my body. It must be.  The point for the phone though is that two years is a long time to commit to a single object. It is a lot of hours of use, a lot of strange locations, a lot of potential drops and spills. There is no other object in my life that spends so much time with me and is so delicate. And survives. So a two-year commitment to any single phone seems an odd decision. But that is the current US cellular climate, and despite my vocal protests and Google’s attempt at direct sales, it will not be changing this week.

I am ready for a new phone. I enjoy the iPhone, and am not currently enamored of any other maker’s offering, though I watch them all. I had hope for Palm, and believe Android/HTC will tempt me repeatedly, but at the current moment, they do not. My main desires, for a faster processor, better battery life and nicer display, are all at least partially addressed by iPhone 4.

What hesitation then? Well you see it comes to this: I live in San Francisco. I spent an hour or so at the Haight Street Fair yesterday (which may or may not be spelled with an additional e’). My iPhone 3G spent that time bleeding battery into a No Service” search. A futile one, because in addition to the thousands of people who would bring down AT&T’s modest network regardless of the location, there is another problem: AT&T has no coverage on Haight Street.  This is a well-kept secret, as Haight and Ashbury are relatively high-profile streets in San Francisco, and a mainstay of the tourist circuit.

How then can AT&T simply abandon the neighborhood? Your guess is as good as mine. But the dead zone, as these things are called, extends some 100 yards up and down Haight on either side of Ashbury, and is reliable enough that, when riding a bus down Haight, I can count down to the moment my phone will lose coverage. This is not the only such spot, but it is an excellent example of why AT&T customers in San Francisco are so unhappy.

But we have the fastest 3G network,” claim the ads. But your network doesn’t work, I say. Yes, in other cities AT&T remains relatively useful.  In San Francisco, however, it is a wish and a prayer.  In my first three hours back from New York last week I made three calls to three different people from three different locations. They all failed. Perhaps this is my hardware, save that the same phone had worked fine in New York scant hours before. Perhaps it is the network.

There is one other thing. In China, to take as an example a location whose carriers and cellular industry I am at least comfortably knowledgable about, this service would not be so maddening. In China, at the end of the month, I received a bill for the number of minutes used and the amount of data transferred. If AT&T functioned in this manner (or any US carrier, for that matter) such a dead zone would not be as frustrating, because I wouldn’t be paying for service in it.

The US wireless market remains that rare combination of uncompetitive, expensive, and mediocre. And yet here I live, in San Francisco. What to do, what to do?

Luckily I have another 24 hours until iPhone 4 pre-orders to make up my mind.

The test of a mobile’s keyboard

The test of a mobile’s keyboard is at what length of intended entry one gives up and waits until a laptop is available.

Pause.

For me, with the iPhone, that point arrives sooner than it has in the past.

Regardless of what Gruber says now about it being good enough” or what he said at it’s introduction, regardless of how biased I may be, and how wonderful the customization of keyboards is, the length I enjoy typing directly onto the screen is lower than it was on other devices.  List of devices used prior here.

As a related note:  has anyone else gotten worse at typing on an iPhone lately?