Apple ignored iOS developer warnings prior to Maps debacle


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You think you're frustrated with Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL) Maps? Consider how the Taiwan government feels. PhysOrg reported this week that a top-secret military base in the northern city of Hsinchu is clearly visible in the Maps application--the site houses a $1.2 billion radar system capable of detecting missiles launched as far away as northwest China. (Taiwanese officials estimate that China has more than 1,500 missiles aimed directly at the island.) "Regarding images taken by commercial satellites, legally we can do nothing about it," a Taiwan defense ministry spokesman told reporters. "But we'll ask Apple to lower the resolution of satellite images of some confidential military establishments the way we've asked Google (NASDAQ:GOOG) in the past."

It's not only consumers and military brass grappling with the headaches of Apple Maps. Third-party iOS developers are dealing with its inaccuracies and inadequacies as well. The difference is that some of those developers warned Apple that trouble was afoot as early as June, after they were given their first pre-release version of the Maps software, according to a CNet report. "I posted at least one doomsayer rant after each [developer] beta, and I wasn't alone," said a developer with three iOS apps in the App Store. "The mood amongst the developers seemed to be that the maps were so shockingly bad that reporting individual problems was futile. What was needed wasn't so much an interface for reporting a single point as incorrect, but for selecting an entire region and saying 'all of this--it's wrong.'"

All of the developers interviewed by CNet requested anonymity, citing their ongoing relationships with Apple. They revealed that Apple issued no fewer than four pre-release Maps builds before publicly launching the service last month, consistently ignoring iOS developer forum threads documenting various problems including incorrect locations, clouds in satellite images and less detailed images compared to those found in Google Maps, which Apple Maps replaced. "During the beta period I filed bug reports with Apple's Radar system (notorious for being ignored), posted on the forums several times, and emailed multiple people within Apple's MapKit team to voice our concerns," another developer said. One Apple employee did respond to the bug reports and said the issues were "well understood," but did not offer additional information or progress updates.

Apple CEO Tim Cook issued a public apology for Apple Maps last month, admitting "We fell short" on meeting customer expectations and recommending users explore alternative mapping technologies while Apple continues to improve the service. Because Apple Maps is built into the iOS SDK, developers are left scrambling for options of their own as well: CNet reports that two developers interviewed for its report are updating their applications to leverage mapping data from Google and Microsoft (NASDAQ:MSFT), with one developer adding that more than a third of his customer support queries since the launch of iOS 6 have asked about downgrading back to iOS 5, which features Google Maps instead of Apple's in-house service. "I don't have a great answer unless [customers] did certain technical procedures before upgrading to 6, of which most people don't do those or jailbreak their phone," the developer said. "I would prefer to spend my time on improving something instead of dealing with problems like this. An option would have been nice."

Apple declined to comment on the report, and has not updated the status of its Maps improvement efforts since Cook's apology two weeks back. But both developers and consumers say they are seeing clear improvement to Apple Maps features like 3D views, updated satellite imagery and more accurate search results. Still, the question remains: Why did Apple push an inferior product into the marketplace? "I think if Apple really wanted to go down this path, then they should have given themselves a year to get everything right," one developer said. "In that time, they could have offered their own maps as the default, but allowed users and developers the option to use Google Maps as an alternative." Chances are we'll never be privy to Apple's thinking, of course--Apple may accidentally out the occasional classified military base, but its own secrets remain under lock and key.--Jason