Apple Maps errors send Japanese to homegrown app

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Apple Maps errors send Japanese to homegrown app
When Hikarie, Tokyo's new must-visit shopping destination, opened in April, it was already old news on Mapion's map application. An elite team at the company, which is based here, had marked the glass tower a year earlier, keeping the service a step ahead in this fast-changing city.

Mapion is one of Japan's homegrown companies that is benefiting from Apple's maps debacle, which has left local owners of the new iPhone 5 flummoxed over erroneous place names, long-outdated landmarks and train stations that appear to hover in the middle of the sea.

Those errors have prompted legions of users to flock to other map services, including Mapion, which has seized the day by promoting a map app it says is among the most obsessively checked and updated in Japan.

Downloads of its Mapion iPhone app, introduced in June, have jumped threefold since Apple released an update to its mobile software last week that replaced Google's maps with its own, said Yasunori Yamagishi, who runs Mapion's development team.

"Apple Maps has definitely been a tail wind for us," Mr. Yamagishi said. "It goes to show how much time and effort it takes to build a map for somewhere like Japan."

Apple's decision to switch to its own, less-polished maps does not appear to have hurt sales of its latest iPhone, which went on sale Friday in Japan to long lines and much fanfare. But it has demonstrated, on a global scale, how Apple, a seemingly infallible company, is still prone to embarrassing missteps.

Apple's map errors have been particularly embarrassing in hard-to-navigate Japan, where maps have become an essential smartphone feature. In Japan, most streets do not have names, and house numbers are often assigned by order of registration, not location. Before GPS and smartphones, the Japanese often went around city blocks two or three times, puzzling over well-worn maps looking for an address.

Moreover, cities like Tokyo are changing fast: its 80,000 restaurants, for example, open and close at a rapid rate amid cutthroat competition. Navitime, another map app that has benefited from Apple's map problems, updates its data every eight hours, and replaces a third of its seven million data points every year.

Against this challenging backdrop, Apple's maps have been a disappointment from the start. In central Tokyo, they show a busy Shinjuku subway station in the middle of serene Shinjuku Gyoen park, one of many errors diligently cataloged by Japanese bloggers. The Hinode monorail stop hovers above the waters of Tokyo Bay, which is erroneously labeled "the North Pacific."

Hikarie, the new shopping tower, is nowhere to be found, while a museum, now closed and once run by Tokyo Electric, the operator of the ravaged nuclear power plant at Fukushima, is marked as a major landmark nearby.

Apple has said that its map service was a work in progress and would improve as more people used it.

The biggest problem with Apple's map, Mapion's Mr. Yamagishi said, is that much of its data appears to be drawn from OpenStreetMap Japan, a Wikipedia-like service that contains a lot of incorrect and outdated information.

Moreover, Japan uses a system of longitude and latitude that differs slightly from the global standard, and Apple may have mixed up data sources that use the two systems, Mr. Yamagishi said.

At certain points, the difference between the Japanese and international coordinate systems can come to as much as 450 meters (1,476 feet), according to Japan's Land Ministry.

"It looks like they haven't merged their various data sources very well. That's a painstaking process that will take a lot of time and effort," Mr. Yamagishi said.

Mapion has been merging data constantly since 1997, he said, and has a team of engineers who scour sources for information that might require map updates. The team got the word in November 2011 that Hikarie would open the following year, and quickly updated its data with the planned shopping tower.

Those efforts have paid off: Mapion gets a combined 86 million page views of its online map service a month from PCs and smartphones.

Copyright 2012 The New York Times News Service


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