Why Apple is playing the long-game with its Maps app

Steve Dinneen
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An Apple user walks into a bar. Or a church. Or a field. He’s not really sure. Ha! A joke at Apple’s expense! That’s not something you hear every day. If you believe the hype, problems with Apple’s in-house Maps app could be the iPhone 5’s equivalent of the antenna troubles that dogged the launch of the iPhone 4 (I know Maps is really an iOS 6 issue, not an iPhone one but most consumers will lump them together). Map-gate has even got its own Downfall parody.

The good news is, unlike the iPhone 4 problems, which were hardware based (and, according to Apple, the fault of stupid left-handed people holding their phones incorrectly), the Maps app can be remotely fixed by Cupertino. It may, of course, take some time to get round to sorting out the rather long list of errors, which range from missing railway stations to entire towns being unceremoniously ditched in the sea.

The question many iPhone users are asking is: “For the love of God, why?” An entire generation has become dependent on Google Maps to find their way to the bathroom. I have trouble locating my elbow without first consulting my handheld oracle. Why try to replace one of the most successful ventures to come out of a company with more then a few successful ventures under its belt?

The reason is, Google Maps is key to the company’s augmented reality (AR) plans. And AR is about to become very big business indeed. It involves placing a “data-layer” over what we see as “reality” – so, point your phone at an advert and it can become animated, and provide an option to “click” through to buy the product (we demonstrated the first editorial use of Aurasma AR last year, when we set a dinosaur loose around Nelson’s Column).

Trend-spotters all seem to agree that AR will be the next major development in advertising, with Google’s Project Glass, which delivers AR via a special pair of glasses, giving ad men the world over a quasi-sexual shudder of delight. Suddenly, companies will have an infinitesimally detailed breakdown of their potential customers, right down to how many yards they are from their nearest store. Imagine walking down the street, when a sign that only you can see flashes into your vision offering you 20 per cent off a pair of trainers. If you’re interested, a map could appear leading you straight to the door.

At the heart of this technology is geo-location, which, if it going to be useful to consumers, needs to be pegged to a map. So, while Apple’s Maps app may be experiencing some teething problems, forcing its way into the space now, while there is still a fighting chance of catching up with Google, makes very good business sense.

Regardless, the issues with Maps don’t seem to be putting many iPhone customers off, with yet another tedious week of record-smashing sales. There are now more iPhones on pre-order than there are stars in the night sky, and all this despite the somewhat muted critical response. Regular readers may remember my first impression of the iPhone 5 was that it should have been called the 4SS: sure, it’s a bit bigger, and a bit faster but it hardly reinvents the wheel.

But, like a charming friend who always manages to persuade you to lend him a tenner, I’ve been won over. You really have to spend some time with the iPhone 5 to appreciate it. Treat it nice, watch a movie with it, buy it some apps. After less than a week, the thought of switching back to the 4S makes me want to projectile vomit my spleen. If the biggest problem with the hottest consumer device ever created is a slightly rushed maps app, then things could be far worse. Spare a thought for poor old BlackBerry, the former belle of the ball: while Apple was breaking records last week, BlackBerry users couldn’t even check their emails.