November 2012 has seen a flurry of discussion about mapping applications for smartphones, with Google Maps, Apple Maps and Nokia's Here all vying for appreciation by users and critics alike.
Apple may have the hottest phone handset at present in the shape of the iPhone 5, which has sold extremely well since its launch in September - but Apple Maps is struggling to ride on the coattails of its success as part of the package. In fact, it has been so disappointing that Apple has fired senior manager Richard Williamson within the last few days, following the dismissal of software chief Scott Forstall in October.
So, what do we actually want from a mapping app? A few bells and whistles are wonderful enhancements, of course, but it essentially comes down to one core asset - and that's accuracy. There's no use in providing a facility which can give you verbal directions and beautiful images if they're indicating the wrong place. In most cases, people simply need to quickly check their location and find out how best to get to the next one - which is what provides the foundation upon which to build more exciting features.
For brands, it is vital that their places of business are easy to find and correctly labelled, as it weakens a consumer's first impression if a company's shop or office is shown to be non-existent, sitting within a river, or mismarked as a pub.
So, how are the three most famous map apps faring?
As noted above, Apple Maps has had a very bumpy start. iPhone 5 purchasers and downloaders of new operating system iOS6, available on all iPhones, suddenly found themselves forcibly separated from the familiar sight of Google Maps on their home screen and confronted instead with Apple Maps.
That issue alone was jarring for many, who had grown comfortable with Google's product and weren't keen to change. It was compounded, however, by the wealth of errors featured within Apple Maps. Incorrectly-labelled locations, missing towns and strange display mistakes forced Apple CEO Tim Cook into an embarrassing apology to consumers, admitting that the company "fell short" of expectations.
The story in public awareness is well illustrated by Wikipedia; where other map apps are treated to detailed descriptions of their features and histories, while Apple Maps has two blunt sections: 'Background' and 'Criticism' - and the latter is the longest.
As a brand and service, Google Maps is the internet's top map service and has long been popular in its own right - but this was enhanced with its inclusion as a default app when Apple first launched the iPhone handset in 2007. The partnership was mutually beneficial for several years and appeared harmonious... until Google considered the addition of a voice-controlled turn-by-turn directions service, which Apple felt was too similar to its own facilities.
The Google Maps app was soon rendered unavailable for use on Apple products. This is something which Google hopes to change and it is developing a new app for iOS use - but there are doubts as to whether Apple will approve it for inclusion in the App Store. Google seems determined, however, recently stating: "Our goal is to make Google Maps available to everyone who wants to use it, regardless of device, browser, or operating system."
In the meantime, iPhone users mourning the loss of Google Maps can bookmark it as a web app via the Safari browser. It has developed attractive new features in recent times, including the ability to navigate inside buildings, such as shopping malls and airports; and also a new job seeking service known as JobKaster.
Nokia's map service is known as Here and is already available via Apple's App Store. Despite not having the brand identity strength of Google Maps or Apple Maps, it is certainly a serious contender, employing Navteq mapping data long used by in-car satellite navigation systems.
It comes as a headline feature of the Nokia Lumia Windows Phone 8 handset and provides features such as traffic updates, voice-guided walking directions and detailed public transport information. The latter even includes bus stops, alongside railway, tram and underground stations.
One of Here's most promising innovations is its emphasis on user data, encouraging people to contribute their knowledge of locations to provide a more community-based picture of each place. It's early days to say whether this may be a threat to Google+ Local, which is tied into Google Maps - but its data history and availability via iOS are certainly advantageous.
Trusting in services
Perception of accuracy is a fragile thing and it only takes one instance of failure to ruin it. If a business owner loses out on sales because consumers can't find their business, or someone struggles to get to a job interview on time as a result of poor directions, those people will think twice about using the service again.
A man recently hiked across Southeast Asia in aid of charity with only Google Maps as his guide - which is quite a vote of confidence. Would someone be keen to risk the same with Apple Maps, considering its performance so far? Hmmm... probably not.