Snappli and Claims of iOS Maps App Usage Plummeting

Snappli is the provider of a data compression app and service for Android and iPhone. Basically, they provide a proxy service for cellular data. (I’m surprised Apple allows such a thing through the App Store, if for the privacy implications alone — if you’re using this, all your cellular data traffic is visible to Snappli.) Snappli today claimed that, according to their usage data, after upgrading to iOS 6 most iPhone users soon stop using the built-in Maps app:

Summary: before iOS 6 1 in 4 people were using Google maps at least once a day. After iOS 6: 1 in 25 using Apple maps and falling.

That’s a rather staggering claim. If it’s even vaguely accurate, it’s a jaw-dropping indictment of the new iOS Maps. But is it accurate? Christopher Peri at VentureBeat writes:

Now this is just one data point and not enough to make general conclusions, but I would not be surprised if this is just the beginning of more evidence that Apple users will not put up with degraded user experiences.

Good thing he didn’t make a general conclusion in the headline: “Just 4% of iOS 6 Users Still Using Apple Maps After 5 Days”. No general conclusions there, no sir.

Kevin Tofel — who usually does much better work than this — seems to buy this conclusion too: “After Fast Uptake, Apple Maps Use Plunges to 1 in 25 iOS Owners”. Peter Cohen simply calls bullshit, and then Jim Dalrymple follows up with a piece showing how much less data the new iOS Maps consumes compared to the old one. Everyone knows what turn-by-turn and voice-driven directions are; I suspect most people have no idea what “vector” map tiles are or how big a difference they can make.

And that’s exactly the conclusion Charles Arthur draws, in a long and thoughtful piece on the new iOS Maps for The Guardian:

Except there’s one confounding factor: Google’s maps on iOS 5 use raster graphics; Apple’s Maps on iOS 6 use vector graphics (the same format as Nokia, and as Google’s Maps on Android).

The key difference between raster and vector graphics is that raster graphics are a fixed-frame set — essentially, a picture - whereas vector graphics are files where the images they encode can be scaled up or down without requiring any extra data. There is a cost in terms of CPU to using vector graphics — but the big advantage is that you don’t have to download any extra data once you have the tile.

Arthur’s own experience shows that you don’t even need a data connection to use the new Maps:

That was certainly my experience earlier this week in Korea, where on a visit to Samsung I had an iPhone running iOS 6 which had no data contract. One evening I looked at the overview of North and South Korea (it turns out Apple’s Maps offer more detail than Google does for North Korea; the latter’s is just a white blank). The next day, with zero data coverage, we were taken on a coach trip to a Samsung production facility.

The phone tracked our entire journey, with street-level data including the names of shops, all the way. And all the way back. And then, later, out to the airport. All that, without getting a single extra drop of data.

Superior caching and the data-size advantage of vector map tiles seems to me a more likely explanation for the drop in Maps data consumption than Snappli’s conclusion that only 4 percent of iOS 6 users are using the app.

Update: Interesting post from Onavo (a competitor to Snappli):

Our data experts performed an identical series of activities on Google Maps and Apple Maps that included searching for several US cities, addresses and airports and zooming in and out to locate specific locations. On Google Maps, the average data loaded from the cellular network for each step was 1.3MB. Apple Maps came in at 271KB — that’s approximately 80% less data! On some actions, such as zooming in to see a particular intersection, Apple Maps’ efficiency advantage edged close to 7X.

Apple Maps’ overwhelming data advantage in Standard Map views is because of Apple’s use of vector graphics. Instead of downloading map tile images every time users zoom in or out of a map view, Apple’s vector graphics approach resizes dynamically, resulting in the drastically reduced data usage we observed, as well as smooth resizing and fast responsiveness.