How is Apple Maps doing?May 29, 2013: 6:22 AM ET
The company's mapping switch was widely decried. Have things gotten any better?
FORTUNE -- Nine months after Apple rolled out a much-criticized update to its Maps app for iPhones and iPads, some people are still not pulling punches.
"As most of you probably heard, last December, we launched Google Maps on the iPhone," said Daniel Graf, Director of Google Maps, at this year's Google (GOOG) I/O conference. "It has been a tremendous success. The feedback has been very positive. People called it sleek, simple, beautiful, and -- let's not forget -- accurate."
Graf, of course, was referring to Apple (AAPL) Maps, and in particular, the company's decision to stop using Google's mapping data. The end result may have been easy on the eyes but frustrating to some users who reported problems like inaccurate directions or missing landmarks, some of which were borne out by Fortune's own review.
The brouhaha became so bad, Tim Cook penned an apology, even going so far as to recommend users temporarily try competitors' services. "We are extremely sorry for the frustration this has caused our customers, and we are doing everything we can to make Maps better," he wrote. So it was no surprise that when Google eventually released a separate Google Maps app for the iPhone, users downloaded it over 10 million times in the first 48 hours, making it one of the most popular iOS apps for a time.
Apple declined to comment for this story. However, at a recent conference, CEO Tim Cook addressed Maps, saying that Apple "screwed up."
"It didn't look good," admits Brian Blau, Research Director for Gartner, who says that some of the criticism lobbed at Apple Maps was justified and that the company needed to make improvements. "But did Maps deserve some of the negative press and negative sentiment that went on, day after day, week after week, and what not? I don't think so."
Apple is reportedly working hard behind the scenes to improve Maps, beefing up its staff with employees like "Maps Ground Truth Managers" for at least seven regions around the world. According to job listings, such managers would be responsible for supervising the team in charge of testing new releases of map data, capturing new location data, and testing competitors' products.
The company has also pushed out a number of Maps updates, offering improved placement for hundreds of city labels, better satellite imagery for countries like England, France, and Germany, and expanded "Flyover" coverage, meaning more 3-D, photorealistic areas are viewable. And turn-by-turn navigation has been added for at least 12 international cities including Barcelona, Copenhagen, Dublin, and Rome.
While Blau says Apple Maps still lags behind Google Maps as far as features, functionality, and accuracy, he sees Apple's mapping service only getting significantly better. And while Apple's reputation for quality may have been hurt by the Maps controversy, the damage was temporary. "I think people will trust them," Blau says. "I think it's going to take a significant effort on their part to get to that point, and I say that because clearly there are other mapping technologies that are out there."
Blau is largely referring to Google Maps, which had a multi-year head start on Apple. At Google I/O earlier this month, Google revealed a major product update, with features like more detailed maps with indoor photos and 360-degree views of cooperating businesses and Google+ integration so users can check out reviews from their social network connections. One scenario Google served up: Maps can now analyze the kinds of restaurants users like or routes they most often take and offer suggestions.
But while Apple received grief for dropping Google, analysts like Blau say the move was inevitable. "Mapping is hot," he says. "It's the key to connecting all of us with the things that are in the world, so no wonder all these big consumer platforms want access to it." Today, mapping products may currently help users get from point A to point B, but the potential for such location services remains large, and the ways location can be further be integrated into people's lives, particularly as smartphone adoption continues, are also huge. Where a person likes to eat, shop, watch movies, and how they prefer to get there is valuable data. To wit, it's likely why Facebook (FB) and Google may be willing to pay $1 billion to buy the popular traffic navigation startup Waze.
For Apple, capitalizing on such an opportunity was probably too good to miss.