Apple Inc.’s move to replace Google Inc.’s mapping software with its own on its mobile devices sparked a world-wide consumer backlash, marking a rare strategic blunder by a company more accustomed to rave reviews from users.
As Apple prepped its stores for the first sales of the iPhone 5 on Friday, the company faced vociferous complaints from consumers over the mapping application it released this week, which replaces the Google maps that have been part of the iPhone since the device’s initial 2007 release. The new maps come installed on the iPhone 5 and will be seen by other users who upgrade their iPhones and iPads to the company’s latest iOS 6 mobile operating system.
The criticism poured in world-wide as users of the new maps found misplaced labels for businesses and landmarks, cities with missing roads and erroneous features like a fractured river in Ann Arbor, Mich. A search for the Golden Gate Bridge yielded a marker roughly four miles away in San Francisco.
Complaints of the application came amid praise for the new iPhone and mobile software as consumers and bloggers took to dozens of websites—including Facebook, Twitter and a newly created blog sarcastically called “The Amazing iOS 6 Maps”—to circulate screen shots of the mapping errors and compare them to Google’s service.
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But more than an embarrassment, the misstep highlights Apple’s challenge as it takes on Google and others with Web services.
While the two Silicon Valley companies were once on good terms, they began encroaching on one another’s turf in recent years and are now fighting to take the lead in the fast-growing mobile software and device market. Google today makes Android mobile software, which competes with Apple’s mobile operating system.
Apple spokeswoman Trudy Muller said the company knows its map service is a major initiative and designed it so that it would get better as more people use it. She also acknowledged that some features, such as transit information, were absent and would be integrated with the help of application developers.
“We appreciate all of the customer feedback and are working hard to make the customer experience even better,” she said.
Apple’s new maps app does have some new and improved features. It offers free turn-by-turn voice-guided navigation, something that wasn’t available in the old app. It also integrates reviews from Yelp Inc. into its map listings.
Maps are a key element of the rivalry between the two companies. Mobile ads associated with maps or locations are a big business, estimated to account for about 25% of the roughly $2.5 billion spent on ads on mobile devices in 2012, up from 10% two years ago, according to Opus Research.
Apple’s iPhone has been preloaded with Google Maps since it first went on sale, and it was the default mapping app on the iPad. More than 90% of U.S. iPhone owners use Google Maps, but as tensions rose between the two companies over competitive products and features, Apple decided to go its own way.
Starting in 2009, Apple began acquiring several companies to build its mapping technology. Its new maps app also uses information from Dutch navigation system maker TomTom NV.
Lea Armstrong, a spokeswoman for TomTom, said the company supplies its maps to Apple but said handset makers typically are responsible for additional features and visual imagery shown in an application.
Apple released the iOS 6 software for several models of the iPhone and iPad on Wednesday, booting Google Maps in the process. Google has yet to make Google Maps available to download as a separate app for iOS 6, though its service is available through Google’s website.
People quickly took to social networks and formed online groups such as “Give me back my Google Maps” to criticize what they perceived as a lack of expected features and inaccurate information in Apple’s new maps app. A zoomed-in map of the campus of the University of Missouri in Columbia, for example, didn’t show or identify any buildings like Google Maps does.
In Japan, some searches in Japanese ran into language problems, with several geographic points in the coastal city of Iwakuni in Yamaguchi Prefecture only offered in Korean. Haneda Airport, one of Tokyo’s two major airports, was incorrectly dubbed Daio Paper Corp., the name of Japan’s leading tissue maker.
In Hong Kong, customers found Apple’s maps software displayed the wrong location for Queen’s Pier, a boat terminal in the city’s financial district—though the location for a nearby Apple Store was correct.
Apple’s mapping efforts remain nascent compared with those of Google, which began offering maps in 2005. Google has improved its maps over time, sending employees around the globe, taking photos of streets, collecting data about where things are and continuously updating its information.
Google spokesman Nate Tyler said the Mountain View, Calif., company’s goal is to make its maps application available to everyone who wants it “regardless of device, browser, or operating system.” He declined to comment on whether Google was preparing an app for iOS 6.
Simon Thompson, director of global business solutions at mapping company Environmental Systems Research Institute Inc., said customers now expect their phones to easily locate and direct them. Apple, he said, will need to spend time updating its maps. Part of that process is releasing the app to the public and receiving data from customers who use the product, he said.
“We’ve forgotten the complexity and effort that goes into making that [maps] work,” Mr. Thompson said.
Some consumers said they would hold off buying the iPhone 5 because of Apple’s maps application. Tom Hollings, a 34-year old freelance film and television producer from London, said that after he downloaded iOS 6 to his iPhone 3GS on Thursday morning, he discovered Google’s popular Street View was no longer available. When he tried to look up train times and directions, they also weren’t available. Mr. Hollings said he won’t upgrade to an iPhone 5 until Apple’s maps app improves or Google releases its maps app for the phone. He added that he downgraded his Apple software to an older version to get Google’s maps back.
“Maps is the app I use most because it has where am I, where am I going and what’s near me,” he said.
Shaw Wu, an analyst at Sterne Agee, said that he viewed Apple’s maps application as similar to its iTunes media and apps stores. “It seems Apple is not as interested in making money off this,” he said, adding that whatever amount of money Apple might make would not be material to its estimated $156 billion in sales this year. Still, he said, it is clearly aimed at Google. “It’s a feature and differentiator,” he said.