Why is Google maps obscuring what Apple and Nokia’s are happy to show you?

Yesterday I published a short report on Google obscuring military sites in its maps. Since publishing it, I’ve been accused of link-baiting, Google bias (hey, it makes a change from being called an Apple fanboy), spreading FUD, and all manner of other evil activities.

Here’s the full report.

I’d hoped the report would raise some interesting questions. To me it’s an incredibly fascinating subject; what do countries hope to gain by ordering Google and others to pixelate their imagery? Any military worth a damn would surely hide sensitive equipment from their enemies’ spy planes and satellites anyway. And, paraphrasing a commenter, “nothing says ‘hey this is probably worth bombing’ like a pixelated field in the middle of nowhere.”

I wanted to answer a couple of questions in the report. First; “what prompts Google to obscure the sites (and many others throughout the world) in the first place?” and second; *why hasn’t Apple’s satellite image provider been prompted to do the same?“

Google was more than happy to speak with me about its policy, even if the answer it gave, when you consider the facts, was a little unsatisfactory. A spokesperson told me that Google had never had a conversation with officials that resulted in it blurring imagery. However, as Google has access to the same satellite images as Apple (via DigitalGlobe), it looks as though it’s choosing low-res photography for certain sites.

My conclusion regarding Apple (and in part, Nokia, whose maps fall somewhere between the other companies’) was that its Maps app hasn’t really been on the radar of governments, especially considering that, despite a lengthy beta program, the app has only been ‘public’ for a week or so. I closed saying that, as countries take this sort of thing extremely seriously, the company will have to deal with these kind of government requests, and will likely have to start pixelating its maps as well. Unfortunately, Apple didn’t respond to my request for comment.

What I DIDN’T imply, anywhere in the article, was that Apple was enabling terrorists, attempting to incite a war, or being willfully abrasive towards foreign governments. The company is totally new to this market and, apart from a single case in Turkey, I don’t think what it’s doing can even be deemed a serious issue (although I’m sure some agencies will disagree). I think there will be a ton of “leaning” on Apple to change its imagery — behind closed doors of course. I’m pretty sure my article alleviates Apple and Nokia of any blame, as well. The report basically says: “hey, isn’t it interesting that one company has clearly been forced into doing this, but two others haven’t?”

So when people, or indeed other websites, start comparing screenshots of Area 51 (a location completely unobscured on all three services), and shouting that “Google’s maps are actually clearer here!” I can’t help but feel that they’ve missed the point entirely. It would seem, to me at least, that if Google hasn’t pixelated an area then neither Google nor Google’s partners have been asked to pixelate an area, simple as that.

Spotify, app fragmentation, and glass houses

I came across a link to a path post today that criticized Spotify for having two separate apps for iOS 4 & 5 devices in the App Store:

Uh major fail if you have to create different apps for different versions of iOS…

My first reaction was pretty simple: really?

The post was by Michael Potter, who works on Path’s iOS app. Later, he tweeted that “having multiple apps means [Spotify’s developers] aren’t good enough to make it work for all versions,” before pointing out that “Path still actively supports iOS 4 with a single app. It’s called smart engineering.”

Joachim Bengtsson, who works on Spotify’s iOS app, presented the team’s dilemma:

“Trade-off: fix bugs for 95% users VS cut off paying customers VS elegance. Limited resources chose #1 for us.”

At this juncture I’d like to point out that Path’s app supports devices running iOS 4.3 and above.

Spotify for iOS 4 is aimed at iPhone 3G users (stuck on iOS 4.2.something) that either don’t want, or can’t afford, to upgrade their hardware. If Path’s “smartly engineered” app completely ignores pre-3GS devices, why should Spotify’s be expected to do otherwise?

The fact that the Spotify team still makes an effort to support —development has more or less halted aside from bugfixes — the iPhone 3G, is fantastic. Of course, Spotify, unlike Path, is actively selling a service, so it’s in its best interests to keep everyone happy — even if I have trouble believing there are a ton of iPhone 3G users that want to use Spotify.

This isn’t the first time I’ve seen someone take a poke at Spotify’s current dual-app offerings, and I felt compelled to chime in my opinions on the matter. So what was the reply to my support for Spotify’s efforts?

“The point was that a separate app isn’t how you go about supporting old users.”

Apparently, you just shouldn’t bother.

Personally, I’d rather see those of us with modern hardware benefit from the latest features and UI improvements, while users with (relatively) ancient smartphones continue to be able to access the service.

I love Path, I love the Path app, and I’m sure Michael Potter is a lovely guy. We just differ in opinion on this matter.