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Wednesday, Oct. 17, 2012

TECH_JAPAN

WEB

Apple should team up with local companies to solve Maps dilemma


In September, a major update of Apple's iOS software for iPhones and iPads (iOS6) replaced the devices' long-standing Google Maps application with Apple's self-made Maps service. However, the new app soon caused outrage among iDevice users around the world due to the low quality of the maps.

News photo
Lost in transliteration:"Itsumo Navi Japan Map" by Zenrin makes a good local alternative to Apple Maps.

In Japan, where addresses are rather complicated, people had become highly accustomed to Google Maps' detailed direction-search function and Apple Maps has been a significant downgrade from what Japanese smartphones users expect from such a service.

Such mishaps as the duplication of the disputed Senkaku Islands and the inclusion of a train station bizarrely called Pachinko Gundam have been widely reported, but there are many other Japan-specific problems. These include major landmarks being located up to 400 meters from their actual position; maps that are not up-to-date (for example, am/pm convenience stores are still marked despite the chain being taken over by Family Mart in 2009); new roads and buildings are missing (including the absence of the huge new Shibuya Hikarie complex in Tokyo's Shibuya shopping district); the 3-D mode shows distorted shapes for well-known points of interest such as Tokyo Tower; and some place names are shown in Korean or Chinese instead of Japanese.

Also, instead of important destinations such as train stations and airports being clearly marked, preference has been given to restaurants and shops (including mislabelling the Gunma Prefecture Government Office as a restaurant), and navigation using public transportation — something that is essential in Tokyo's complicated rail network — is not available.

Internationally, problems such as these prompted Apple CEO Tim Cook to issue a rare apology 10 days after the release the app, and Apple's App Store introduced a "recommended maps" section. For English speakers, Cook recommended three apps (Waze, MapQuest and Bing) and two websites (Nokia Maps and Google Maps) as alternatives while Apple are improving Maps. All five solutions are free, though there are also paid apps competitive with what Apple Maps is trying to do.

Cook's apology was translated into Japanese and —as most of the originally suggested apps did not support Japan and/or Japanese — the Japanese apology suggested five different apps. All five are apps by Japanese companies: Two are free (Chizu Mapion and Yahoo! Loco) but the other three are paid apps (MapFan for iPhone, Itsumo Navi and Navitime), which have more features, such as turn-by-turn navigation — both Yahoo! Japan and Mapion boasted on their official blogs how accurate and useful their apps are by displaying them side-by-side with Apple's Maps.

It's good that Apple has recommended Japanese apps, because most U.S. map apps do not support Japan very well. But the problem is that all five of those apps are only offered in Japanese, which is of little use to non-Japanese users living in Japan.

Some alternatives include using Google Maps on the Safari browser, which despite not being recommended in the Japanese announcement works well for Japan. But if you want the slickness of a native app, there is a Japanese app called "Itsumo Navi Japan Map," which supports English place names. The app is made for for non-Japanese in Japan, and it is offered by Zenrin, which also provides map data to Google and others.

The English place names in "Itsumo Navi Japan Map" are, like Apple's, rather sparse, but the map and landmarks are, at least, accurate. And switching to Japanese mode shows many more places, which may help when asking others on the street. The app usually costs ¥1,000 but is free until the end of October, which I initially thought was Zenrin targeting Apple's failure, but it actually turns out to have been free for a couple of months now. It might be good to grab the app while it is free as it does not have navigation or keyword-search — so I am not sure if is worth its regular price.

People tend to connect Apple's Maps failure with the fact that Steve Jobs is no longer in charge of things, so Apple's attention to detail is slipping. But it's worth remembering that Google Maps, which came late to Japan, was also initially criticized as being too U.S.-centric, but it slowly improved its Japanese maps over the years and has become one of the most trusted digital maps in Japan — even over Yahoo! Japan's map services, which led the market for many years.

If Apple does not want to cooperate with Google because of the Android rivalry, how about it shakes hands with Yahoo! Japan? Or why not purchase one of the Japanese map companies who make the apps Apple recommends. Apple has purchased map companies overseas in the past. By not checking the quality of its maps in Japan before the rollout of the app, Apple can be blamed for making light of the Japanese market.

Apple likes to keep its products on a global (i.e., U.S.) model and avoids customizing them with locally popular features such as 1-seg TV or osaifu-ketai (mobile payment system) in Japan, and that has often worked well for it costwise. But for essential smartphone software such as maps, I hope Apple will work hard on good localization, like Google did.

Akky Akimoto writes for Asiajin.com, an English/Spanish blog on the Japanese Web scene. His Twitter account @akky is followed by 120,000 users.


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