The Purcell Street problem – maybe Google haven’t lost (yet)

Big beasts fighting over mapping territory – thanks to

It’s odd how things come together sometimes.

This morning I was reading Charles Arthur’s article on the Guardian “Apple maps: how Google lost when everyone thought it had won“. The article is based upon a ComScore report which suggests that usage of the standalone Google Maps app on US iPhones has fallen off sharply as users switch to using the default Apple Maps app which is now the default within iOS 6 and 7. The article is focussed on the tussle between Google and Apple for ownership of this space, why it may be important to both parties and how Apple’s ownership of the operating system will drive users to their maps app (regardless of whether it’s better, as good as or otherwise). You should read it.

I read the article and I found myself doubting some of the conclusions –

“European and other regional data for maps use is not available, but is expected to mirror that found in the US”

although later on another commentator suggests

“US iPhone users might be more eager to use Apple’s maps because there seem to be fewer errors there compared to other regions, including Europe.”

A ComScore analyst said

“For the average user, even if they have the Google Maps app, they don’t use it a lot,”

I’d love to get a look at the raw data and try to understand how the Guardian analysts have reached their conclusions about the precipitous fall in usage of Google Maps in the US, because it doesn’t fit with my experience in the UK (albeit that is based on anecdotal evidence).

Background over, now for the Purcell Street problem. I received a mail this morning the subject was “3 bed Purcell Street”.  iOS generates a smart link when it detects an address, a date or a phone number which invoke the Maps, Calendar or Phone functions. Being able to immediately make a phone call or create a calendar item from a smart link works smoothly and there is an intermediate stage within the process which prompts the user to confirm that they want to make a call or an entry in their calendar. Unfortunately in their enthusiasm to force users to use Apple Maps the iOS team left out the option to “Show in Apple Maps” or something similar and just leap straight into the Apple Maps app. Why is this a problem? Well there are a few Purcell Streets in England and quite a few more around the world so if this smart link is going to work it needs to take me to the right one. You guessed it didn’t, it took me to the Purcell Street in Manchester rather than the correct one in London without offering me an intermediate stage to disambiguate the address (say which Purcell Street I meant).


Purcell Street, Manchester via Apple Maps app

So I checked in the Google Maps App and as I expected it offered me a list of options for Purcell Street

Purcell Street search options via Google Maps app

Note that Google suggests the London Purcell Street first. So what’s going on here? My hunch was (I say “was” because as you will see in a moment I am not so sure now) that Apple Maps had looked for the nearest Purcell Street to where I was located at the time of searching and since I was in Nottingham it chose the Manchester option which was about 80 miles away rather than the London one which was 126 miles away. An understandable mistake I suppose but one that could have been avoided by  going through a disambiguation phase (if anyone from Apple wants to chip in here please go ahead). Google on the other hand ranked the London address above the Manchester one in it’s list of options, my guess would be that was because Google knows my search history, particularly via Maps on the web and mobile, it understands that I am more likely to be searching in London than in Manchester (perhaps someone else from Google will chip in here).

I’ve been writing this post on the train home i.e. closer to London and wanted to grab some screenshots to illustrate it so I tried selecting the smart link in the subject of the mail again and guess where Apple Maps took me this time? Not London, not Manchester but somewhere near Ipswich

3 Parcell Street, Ipswich, AUSTRALIA

Yup that’s the one, Parcell Street, Australia! Clearly something has gone wrong with the parsing and geocoding to offer Parcell Street, Australia instead of Purcell Street in the UK. I’d call this an #EPICFAIL and unfortunately not the first one I have experienced when I have accidentally been booted into Apple Maps.

Charles Arthur tweeted to me suggesting the point of his article was not whether Apple Maps were better than Google Maps but the struggle for ownership of users’s location data.

I am not going to go into the who is best question except to say that I think in the UK at least Apple still has a way to go but without doubt they will close the gap if they stick with it and they sure look as if they intend to do that. That said, I think Apple may be misguided to be pushing users to Apple Maps in the way that they are before they have closed the gap. Let me explain why.

I am a big Apple fan and appreciate the integration between my phone, tablet and laptop and the common user experience. Unlike the increasing number of US users referred to in the article I use the Google Maps app on iOS6 and now on iOS7 several times per week for all sorts of searches and navigation, it’s up there in my top 10 apps and is on the front screen of my iPhone. I use it because it just works and consistently gets it right. I particularly like the way that the Google Maps app interprets searches I have made in a browser or via my pad and suggests the right destination as soon as I start a search on the iPhone app, this is a tough one for Apple to crack because they aren’t going to own my search history in the foreseeable future.

After the initial Apple Maps problems I relegated the Apple Maps to a folder of default apps that I never use but can’t delete which sits on page 5 out of 5 of my menus. Occasionally I accidentally touch one of those smart links in a mail or text and get catapulted into Apple Maps and the experience is OK but quite often (most times) it does something quirky or plain wrong and that reconfirms my reservations about using it. My advice to Apple would be to back off forcing me to use your maps until you have sorted out some of the shortcomings in the UK service, give me an option “Do you want to view this address in Apple Maps or Google Maps?”

What would I do if Apple prevented me from running a standalone Google Maps app? Well if they hadn’t sorted out  their own maps app it might just be the trigger that prompted me to try one of those high end Android devices. Yup I know I am atypical, I’m a mappy geek, that’s what I do for a living and I have pretty demanding expectations, I wonder how many other long term Google Maps mobile users in the UK (and Europe) feel the same way?

I don’t think Google have lost this battle yet.

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