Apple’s $30bn maps mistake

This blog is from http://www.guardian.co.uk/technology/blog/2012/oct/01/apple-30-billion-maps-mistake?newsfeed=true

Tim Cook’s delayed apology over the maps fiasco tells us a lot about the company’s attitude and management

Tim Cook

Tim Cook has publicly apologised for the problems customers have encountered with the maps app on the iPhone 5. Photograph: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

A short week after releasing the iPhone 5, Apple‘s CEO publicly apologises for the maps fiasco and the company’s website updates its description of the new service. As the digital inspirations blog found out, the unfortunately emphatic description that once read:

“Designed by Apple from the ground up, maps gives you turn-by-turn spoken directions, interactive 3D views, and the stunning flyover feature. All of which may just make this app the most beautiful, powerful mapping service ever.”

becomes more modest:

Designed by Apple from the ground up, maps gives you turn-by-turn spoken directions, interactive 3D views, and the stunning flyover feature. All in a beautiful vector-based interface that scales and zooms with ease.

While we’re improving maps, you can try alternatives by downloading map apps from the App Store like Bing, MapQuest and Waze, or use Google or Nokia maps by going to their websites and creating an icon on your home screen to their web app.

And consumer reports, after trying the new maps, found that, warts and all, they weren’t too terrible:

Apple uses maps from TomTom, a leading navigation company. We suspect many criticisms pointing to the map quality are misguided, as we have found TomTom to provide quality maps and guidance across multiple platforms. Instead, the fault may be Apple’s software applied to the TomTom data.

Either way, in our experience thus far, this is a minor concern.

Bottom line:

Both the free Apple and Google navigation apps provide clear routing directions. Apple feels like a less mature product. But as seen with the initial competing applications for the iPhone, we would expect updates to this new app over time – and Apple has promised as much. When getting down to the nitty gritty, Google provides a better overall package, but we feel that both provide a good solution for standard software. We expect the competition between the companies will benefit customers with ongoing improvements.

So … Normal teething problems, forgivable excess of enthusiasm from proud Apple execs, the whole media fireworks will blow over and everything will be soon forgotten – remember Antennagate?

One would hope so, especially if Apple’s maps keep improving at a good pace.

But look at this graph:

Since the iPhone 5 release, and the Maps fracas, Apple shares lost about 4.5% of their value. That’s about $30bn (£18.6bn) in market cap.

Fair or not, it’s hard not to fantasise about another course of events where, in advance, a less apologetic Tim Cook letter would have told Apple customers of the “aspiring” state of Apple maps and encouraged them to keep alternatives and workarounds in mind. And where Apple’s website would have been modest from day one.

We’ll never know how Apple shares would have behaved, but they certainly wouldn’t have gone lower than they stand now – and Apple’s reputation as a forthright, thoughtful company would have been greatly enhanced.

This is more than piling on, or crying over spilled maps. We might want to think what this whole doing the right thing – only when caught – says about Apple’s senior management.

First, the technical side. Software always ships with fresh bugs, some known, some not. In this case, it’s hard to believe the maps team didn’t know about some of the most annoying warts. Did someone or some ones deliberately underplay known problems? Or did the team not know. And if so, why? Too broad a net to cast and catch the bugs? Too much secrecy before the launch? (But maps were demoed at the June Apple Worldwide Developers Conference.)

Second, the marketing organisation. This is where messages are crafted, products are positioned and claims are wordsmithed. Just like engineers are leery of marketeers manhandling their precious creations, marketing people tend to take engineers’ claims of crystalline purity with, at best, polite cynicism.

One is left to wonder how such a hot issue, Apple maps v Google maps, wasn’t handled with more care – before the blowup. And why, with inevitable comparisons between an infant product and a mature, world-class one, the marketing message was so lackadaisically bombastic.

And last, the CEO. Was trust in his team misplaced or abused? Were the kind of checks that make Apple’s supply chain work so well also applied to the maps product, or was some ill side-effect of team spirit at play, preventing the much-needed bad news to reach the top?

We don’t need to know. But Apple execs do if they want the difficult birth of Apple maps to be written in history as a wake-up call that put the top team back on track. I don’t want to think about the alternative.

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One Response to Apple’s $30bn maps mistake

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