Justin O'Beirne

Justin O'Beirne of San Francisco, California. Essays, projects, and contact information.



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A Google Maps executive once told me that changing cartography is like boiling a frog. Change too much, too soon — and users might react or even revolt. But change things slowly over time, and they won’t even notice. The map will feel as though it’s improving, but no one will quite know why—just that it’s getting better and better.

Looking back over the decade so far, there seems to be some truth to this. 

Three of the biggest cartography changes were Bing Maps in 2010, Apple Maps in 2012, and Google Maps in 2013. And in two of those — Bing and Apple — users revolted.

What made Google different?

In other words, why did users revolt against Bing and Apple, but not against Google?



*   *   *

“Mylar” | Bing’s 2010 Cartography Change

Design has to work; art does not.

Back in the Summer of 2010, Bing Maps was losing ground to Google Maps. Aiming to attract users to its struggling mapping platform (and keep developers from migrating away), Microsoft needed a bold move — something that would cause people to take a second look, something that wouldn’t go unnoticed.

So it teamed up with Stamen, a San Francisco design studio known for artful and experimental cartography…

…And together, Microsoft and Stamen crafted a striking new vision of online cartography — something sure to make a statement.

But when it was released late one August afternoon, it was a statement that few outside of Microsoft understood. And instead of winning new users, it ended up alienating many of its existing ones.

Fewer labels. Less contrast. Harder to read. To many of Bing’s users, the cartography had regressed.

Now that’s not to say that the new map wasn’t beautiful. But it was a beauty rooted in subtlety — and hence, the problem: If a map is a way of communicating, should that communication be subtle? Or should it be obvious and clear?

In the end, Bing may have had the most striking map — but it didn’t have the clearest…

…and those who were already using Google Maps had little reason to switch away.

But the frustration over Bing’s new cartography would pale in comparison to the outrage that Microsoft’s old arch-rival would face two summers later…

“V∙∙∙∙∙∙e” | Apple’s 2012 Cartography Change

Design cannot rescue failed content.

Two summers after Bing revamped its cartography, Apple sought to make a cartographic splash of its own. It was to be “the most beautiful, powerful mapping service ever” — a design so good, iPhone users would forget Google Maps had even existed.

But no matter how much prettier Apple’s new map was compared to what it replaced, it couldn’t erase the fact that its content was orders of magnitude worse and often comically inaccurate.

David Pogue of The New York Times likened Apple’s new Maps app to a $1,500 professional coffee maker that had had moldy beans poured into it, calling it “an appalling first release… the most embarrassing, least usable piece of software Apple has ever unleashed”. Wired, meanwhile, crowned it 2012's biggest tech fail.

Whereas Bing had regressed the map’s usability, Apple had regressed the map’s accuracy. And users were furious.

But what made Bing’s and Apple’s changes even more infuriating was their sudden rollout. Bing had changed overnight, with no prior warning or announcement, surprising its users. And though Apple was careful not to repeat Bing’s mistake—it had announced its map three months ahead of time—the vast majority of Apple’s 300 million users had never actually used it prior to its launch. (The only way to preview Apple’s new map was to sign up for a $99 developer’s license and install buggy pre-release software onto an iPhone.)

Making matters worse, neither Bing nor Apple left users any way to revert to the old map.

So when Bing and Apple suddenly flipped the switch, their customers felt as if a rug had been pulled from underneath them. And a firestorm ensued. Things eventually got so bad for Apple that its CEO was forced to write a public apology that recommended competing mapping products.

It’s not hard to imagine the Google Maps team watching the Apple Maps revolt in horror, as they were secretly preparing a cartography update of their own — an update that was to be the largest and most ambitious in Google Maps’s history…


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