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Why Apple's Maps Flap Could Make Your Life Harder

Don't think Apple's buggy new Maps app affects your business? Think again.

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We've seen this movie before. Apple introduces a new iPhone, and customers stand in line for hours. Then it puts out a new version of iOS, and the complaints roll in. That familiar saga has played itself out in the past week with the new iPhone 5 and iOS 6.

This time the pageant comes with graphics of duplicated islands, a distorted Eiffel Tower, and even Sydney's flagship Apple store in the wrong location. It's inspired comedian routines, a Tumblr feed of the app's most embarrassing flubs, and a quickly-created Motorola ad mocking it as "iLost." There's no doubt about it: The new Apple Maps app has some serious, and seriously funny, flaws.

"There are two pieces to mapping, the software and the data," explains Chris Heivly, managing direct at the Triangle Startup Factory, and a cartographer who co-founded MapQuest. Considering that Apple licensed the data for the maps from the Dutch firm TomTom, he doubts that the data is the issue. "There's no way that data is bad," he said. "It sounds like a software problem."

However the errors came about, there are plenty of good reasons for small businesses to hate Apple's Maps app.

When elephants fight, it's the grass that suffers.

This old saying from Kenya perfectly captures what's happening to small businesses and consumers with iOS 6, which is really designed to be an anti-Google weapon. Apple has taken the perhaps silly step of no longer pre-loading YouTube on iOS 6 devices, forcing users who want it to download it from the App Store--which pretty much all of them will.

Likewise, Apple's introduction of its own Maps app is an attempt to take back one of the most lucrative mobile functions from its rival. "The cost of letting Google run rampant with all the local data in its operating system for another year or two was just not worth it," comments Scott Rafer, CEO of Lumatic City Maps, which provides transit maps for mobile use that integrate with the new Maps app. "They conceivably should have done it a year ago and been even more embarrassed," he adds.

But releasing a product at the beta stage is supposed to be Google's M.O., not Apple's. Think back to the late Steve Jobs demoing one "insanely great" product after another. With Apple, the deal has always been that you pay more and give up some options in exchange for devices that work beautifully and flawlessly. The fact that Apple released buggy software is bad. The fact that it did so not to give users new functionality, but to stomp on Google's toes, is worse.

SEO all over again.

For years, Google Maps has completely dominated the mapping market, giving marketers one platform where they had to make sure names and locations were correct, and that their businesses were optimized for search. Now, there's a second platform to worry about, one that they can't ignore since iOS accounted for about half of Google Maps' mobile traffic--traffic that will mostly now run through Apple Maps.

"Small business marketers are freaking out," Rafer says. "All the people who worked hard to make sure their entries in Google Maps were perfect--that went to hell in a handbasket."

Then there are mobile advertising buys. Again, when Google was the only option, planning and paying for mobile mapping advertising was much more straightforward. Now local businesses will have to figure out how to split their budgets between the two platforms. With over 100 million users already on iOS 6, they can't really afford to skip either.

Yelp has even more power.

The problems with Apple Maps will be resolved over time, but this change is likely to be permanent: Apple Maps is tightly integrated with Yelp. Yelp star ratings appear next to restaurants and other businesses automatically, and clicking on them takes users straight to Yelp.

If you love Yelp and have nothing but positive reviews there, that's good news. But if you're one of the many small businesses who hates the service, or has even sued it, you may find the fact that every passing iPhone user will now see your Yelp rating unsettling.

To upgrade or not to upgrade?

Do the problems with Apple Maps mean you should hold off on upgrading to iOS 6, if you're one of the millions of people with an iPhone or iPod eligible for the update? Probably not. Unless you live in the Falkland Islands (which have no roads at all, according to the app), it may provide you with some amusement but likely won't keep you from finding your way around.

Then again, what do you gain by upgrading? The feature where you can text message callers when you can't take their calls sounds handy--although what if the person is calling from a land line? And the one for storing bar codes sounds good as well, but only works with a few businesses so far.

If you're the sort of person who automatically accepts every upgrade... well you probably have the new operating system already. But if you're someone like me who asks "What's in it for me?" whenever I'm instructed to download an upgrade, you may want to weigh these new features against the benefit of having good old dependable Google Maps when you want it. I did, and I've decided to let Apple work out its predicted six months of map bugginess without me. For now, I'm sticking with iOS 5.

IMAGE: Photo via Twitter user @nebev
Last updated: Sep 25, 2012

MINDA ZETLIN is a business technology writer and speaker, co-author of The Geek Gap, and president of the American Society of Journalists and Authors.
@MindaZetlin




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