Russell Davies: It's a shame Apple won't ask Google for some directions
A view from Russell Davies

Russell Davies: It's a shame Apple won't ask Google for some directions

You've probably caught all the fuss about the mapping app in iOS 6 - the latest version of the iPhone/iPad software.

It's a ripe opportunity for mickey-taking - everyone's happy to see a dominant player such as Apple slip up, especially with something as visual and Tumblr-friendly as maps.

The first lesson from this? Maps are hard. Very hard. All big data stuff is hard - tons of intermingled complexity. But maps are tricky because we can see - really clearly - when they're wrong. Everyone has a local reality they know extremely well with which they can compare the mapping. You can't normally do that with big data on a server somewhere.

There are probably all sorts of big data applications just as screwed up as Apple maps, but it's harder to tell they're broken - we only see the vestigial effects, such as stock-market crashes and inappropriately targeted ads. And it's a bit tough on Apple that we can make direct comparisons with some extremely good maps from Google and Microsoft. They've bought really high-class data and enhanced it with clever maths, hard work and lots of people.

Google says its Street View cars have driven five million miles and collected 20 petabytes of imagery. That doesn't just help mark out the roads. That means it knows where, say, particular shops are because it has got logo-matching software that tells it whether there's a Boots logo on the street. Apple, on the other hand, is relying on mapping data that tells it there are still branches of Woolworths all over the place. And, of course, Google has years of people typing requests into its search engines - it knows what people are looking for and what they tend to type when they're looking for it.

Still, it's a surprise, isn't it, when a company as good as Apple arrives at something as bad as the iOS 6 maps? It should give you pause for thought when someone suggests some sort of local promotion, something based on geography. Mapping is hard.

The second lesson? The walled gardens are getting slowly built around us. The large software/hardware/media/ content businesses are all trying to plug the holes in their ecosystems (to mix some metaphors horribly). Apple's business is tied to mobile; mobile demands great maps; it doesn't want to be beholden to anyone else for them.

Getting them right might take time, but it knows it has to try. That's why Google is investing so much in hardware and why there are always rumours of a Facebook phone.

It's a shame, really, because there are some great platforms they could co-operate on - OpenStreetMap, for instance. But commercial reality probably won't allow it, and soon we'll all have to chose which garden we're going to plump for.