It’s been interesting to observe the visceral reactions people have had to the overhauled Maps app in iOS 6. Everyone, from tech pundits to average users, seems to have an opinion on how awful the new app is. It’s even spawned a mocking Tumblr.
Yes, for a company that touts product perfection as one of its core tenets, the new Maps app is about as imperfect as they come and a rare misstep for the world’s most valuable company.
So I suppose I shouldn’t be that surprised to see articles predicting the end of Apple as we know it. But most articles or posts of this type seem to be of the link bait, lazy journalism variety. So let’s take a look at some of the more prominent doom-and-gloom assertions regarding Apple’s future and take stock of reality.
Steve Jobs would never have let this happen.
This is the type of argument I have seen the most over the last couple of days. And, while it may be true that Jobs may have stopped the app from shipping, without the man making the call himself, we’ll simply never know whether that’s the case or not. However, the substance of the argument is essentially positing that Steve Jobs would never have shipped an imperfect product - people making this argument seem to have a rather limited memory span.
In fact, I can think of two very high-profile duds that Apple shipped under Jobs’s direction - MobileMe and the original iPhone 4 with its flawed antenna. In both cases, Apple was able learn and iterate upon each product in a way that ultimately paid off for them. Apple ended up fixing the issues with the iPhone 4 antenna, offered a free case to early adopters, and sold tens of millions of units of the phone. MobileMe ultimately became iCloud and now has over 150 million paying subscribers.
Even Jobs wasn’t immune from shipping duds. But he was ultimately able to learn from those mistakes and direct Apple to develop better products. The barometer for Apple’s continued success isn’t in whether they release a flawed product every now and then, but rather how they react to and iterate upon those releases.
Apple’s management is reckless and/or incompetent for releasing such an unpolished product.
As I noted, even under Jobs, Apple was no stranger to botched product launches. But whereas those launches may have been the result of some unknown internal dynamic, there may be a simpler business decision at play here.
As has been widely reported, Apple’s contract with Google for Google services on iOS expires this year. Now, it’s not known what the inside story is, but I suspect that Apple was simply content to let their contract with Google expire in order to push their own version of Maps to better control the end-to-end experience with consumers. John Gruber posits two additional theories:
It’s possible Apple tried to renew for another year or two and Google either refused (unlikely, I’d say) or offered to do so under terms Apple found unacceptable (possible, I’d say).
In the first case, it would seem clear that the expiration of their contract with Google presented a good opportunity for Apple to jump ship from the entire Google platform, even if it meant some growing pains for themselves and their users. In the case of either of Gruber’s theories, it’s possible that Google simply gave Apple no choice and they had to push out what they knew was an incomplete product. Whatever the case, it’s probably safe to assume that Apple wanted to stop supplying their primary competitor with absurd amounts of money for its services.
Apple can’t compete with Google in this space.
Well, not at the moment. Google is the 800 pound gorilla in the mapping space - creating a product anywhere near as effective or polished as theirs wasn’t going to happen overnight.
See, building a mapping application is hard. Like, really hard. It requires an enormous amount of human and technical capital, a lot of expertise in geospatial analysis, and a ridiculously large dataset to get anywhere close to where Google’s risen in this space. In retrospect, it’s not really surprising that Apple fell short when we compare their app to the Google Maps of old.
Apple is increasingly dabbling in areas that require strong dataset management and utilization skills - skills that weren’t necessarily required for most of the products in their portfolio previously. But as Apple bets more of its future on cloud computing, these skillsets are going to become more important and Apple is going to have to rapidly develop strong data gathering, data management, and machine learning capabilities in order to make services like Siri and their new Maps app successful.
But that’s not to say that Apple’s not capable of competing on Google’s level. In fact, if there’s any company out there that can give Google a run for its money in this space, despite it not being one of their core competencies, I’d say it’s Apple. But it will take time to get to that level and that will be frustrating for a lot of iOS users. And if Google is indeed readying a new, standalone maps app for iOS (and I don’t see any reason why they wouldn’t be), the onus is going to be on Apple to get to that level of sophistication sooner rather than later.
Apple hasn’t peaked, isn’t doomed, and isn’t going anywhere. The hubbub surrounding the Maps launch is certainly well-deserved and something I’m sure Apple will make strides to correct, but the doomsday predictions are nothing more than hyperbole and sensationalist journalism. Like their missteps of yesteryear, Apple will recover from and adapt to this to produce even higher quality products.