With Maps, Apple’s lost
It started with the fanfare release of the iPhone 5 and its software upgrade in September, which included a big switch from Google Maps to a homegrown alternative from Apple. The upgrade did not go well. Almost immediately, users began noticing that the maps were … unreliable. Not bad enough to slow iPhones sales but bad enough to dominate the news cycle for days.
But the damage was already done. Everyone seemed to be having a field day with Apple’s self-inflicted wound. More than two months later, the drama continues.
This week, Apple fired a senior executive, Map Division head Richard Williamson. Previously, Chief Executive Officer Tim Cook showed Scott Forstall, senior vice president of iOS Software, the door when he wouldn’t go on his own. Cook himself wrote a quick and sincere apology, which seemed to quiet the clamor.
In the tech press, too, things got gleefully hyperbolic. In September, Forbes contributor Peter Cohan wrote of “Apple Maps’ Six Most Epic Fails” — which included bad renderings of three bridges, the lack of Jerusalem, and a route to a Washington airport that, assuming a complete idiot of a driver, might lure a vehicle to a fence near a runway instead of passenger arrivals. Huffington Post’s Britney Fitzgerald described the maps as “pretty ridiculously horrible.” Marguerite Reardon at CNET also left nothing to the imagination: “Apple Maps Stinks.”
There have been voices of reason. Consumer Reports — which did not recommend the iPhone 4 because of a problem with its antenna — said Apple’s maps were “competent enough.” Then there was NBC News digital technology and science editor, Wilson Rothman, whose tongue-in-cheek piece report begins thusly:
Do not, I repeat, do not use Apple’s new Maps app for iOS 6 … if you live on the Falkland Islands, or plan on visiting in the near future. Seriously, you will be lost.
The map problem has had no discernible effect on iPhone sales. In its first weekend, Apple sold 5 million iPhone 5’s. The iPhone 5 is selling so well, in fact, that it has restored Apple as the top smartphone spot in the United States, edging out Android. According to research firm Kantar World Panel, Apple’s iOS has a 48.1 percent share of U.S. smartphone sales, while Google Android has 46.7 percent.
The reason is obvious: Smartphones do so many things that even if one important function isn’t perfect, we tend to live with it.
So why so much hate on Apple? And why is Apple hating on itself?
It could be that Apple has become a big, fat target now that it is settling into middle age and is no longer the underdog. It is protecting its turf (the patent wars with Samsung) and consolidating its domination in mobile hardware with iterative products like the iPhone 5 and the iPad mini, and even a full-size, fourth-generation iPad mere months after the previous one.
Apple also deserves demerits for escalating its blood feud with Google by coming up with homegrown maps in the first place. Even worse than the bad mapping is the lack of routing via public transportation and by foot, standard in the Google Maps app that had been part of the iPhone since inception.
Some expectations of Apple are unreal; only 12-year-olds think products like the iPhone and iPad happen every couple of years. But some are not. It’s unlikely Apple will ever be a scrappy company again. And with that, it may have jumped the shark. Apple courted failure to bask in success: it invented things nobody else believed in and reinvented things others had botched. Apple now seems more on defense than offense.
The company seems obsessed with controlling markets. It plans obsolescence with minor, annual improvements to its products rather than unveiling surprises, genuine One More Things. And thus rises the fear that Apple actually is the new Microsoft — not just in market cap but in its approach to business.
It’s not surprising that our relationship with Apple is changing in the post-Steve Jobs era — that was bound to happen. Some tech writers have asserted that the maps fiasco could never have happened under Jobs — as if antenna-gate and the chaotic cloud strategy that tortured us with .mac, iDisk and MobileMe didn’t happen under his watch. Looking at the array of headlines about the maps issue, it’s almost as if the press is resorting to a tired game of WWSD —What Would Steve Do?
Jobs’ first instinct was to not apologize to anyone. After the iPhone 4 had its malfunctioning antenna, Jobs said, “When we fall short — which we do sometimes — we try harder. We pick ourselves up, we figure out what’s wrong and we try harder. And when we succeed, they reward us by staying our users, and that makes it all worth it.” No apology there. (He did tacitly say “sorry” by giving away $30 iPhone covers to help with the problem.) Before that, he had even told a customer the problem was that he was holding the phone wrong.
Clearly, Apple’s taste for unilateralism, its driving force in the Jobs era, has diminished. Forstall didn’t want to make a public display of remorse (sounds an awful lot like Steve Jobs to me). He is now gone. Improvements started showing up a week after Cook’s apologia, but Williamson wasn’t fixing things fast enough. Now he is gone.
It is possible both men were careless, which is less forgivable than failure ‑ experience of which innovators will tell you is essential to eventual success. But, like even the Cook letter of apology, the beheadings seem like a salve to the masses, a public spectacle to manage the message rather than a long-term solution.
In the long run, humility may be the best strategy. But right now it just feels like Apple is losing its way.
PHOTO: An iPhone5 is displayed at an Apple Store in San Francisco, California, September 21, 2012. Apple fans queued around city blocks worldwide on Friday to get their hands on the new iPhone 5 – but grumbles about inaccurate maps tempered the excitement. REUTERS/Noah Berger