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Tim Cook’s apology marks the spot for faulty Maps app

Updated: September 28, 2012 11:33PM



You couldn’t say that the public letter from Apple CEO Tim Cook to millions of iOS 6 Maps users was completely unprecedented.

When the iPhone 4 was released, users and reviewers immediately discovered that holding it in a certain, common way caused the phone’s signal strength indicator to drip down to zero. After a period of silence, Apple invited a small, carefully-selected group of media to a hastily-planned event on their corporate campus. They got to hear Steve Jobs explain that users were holding the iPhone 4 in a weird, unnatural way (no, they weren’t) and this same problem affected every single phone on the market (not true even by half). He concluded by saying that if users were determined to keep acting like total whiny babies about this, then fine, Apple would give everybody a free iPhone 4 case that would insulate the antennas from this nonexistent problem that the users have created (gee, thanks).

On Friday, Tim Cook responded to the widespread complaints about Maps by saying, in essence, “The app doesn’t work as well as we’d like. We’re sorry. It’ll get better over time. There are some good alternative Maps apps available today . . . here’s a list of the ones we like.”

1) True; 2) I totally believe that; 3) absolutely true, and obvious from the outset; and 4) thanks, Tim . . . and I mean that sincerely.

The letter is a perfect response that covers every point that needs to be said.

Apple’s mistake wasn’t that they released an incomplete and often unreliable product. Creating a brand-new maps service is a monumental undertaking, even if it licenses lots of solid, time-tested datasets from other companies. Even Google’s mapping services had these same kinds of problems in their early days, though those days were long before location became a staple function of mobile devices. Today, Google Maps is best-in-class, and it, too screws up from time to time.

Apple’s mistake was that they pushed Maps into the deep end of the pool straight away. Navigation is a service that either works, or it doesn’t...and all failures are dramatic ones. It’s also a service that every user is going to try immediately.

Instead, Apple should have launched Maps the same way they sent Siri into the world a year ago: as a beta. Siri’s important enough to Apple and iOS and it’s a large enough point of pride that the company was willing to put Martin Scorsese in the back of a cab with it in national commercials this summer. Even so, Apple makes it clear that it’s still a work in progress. By its very nature, Siri requires day to day use by tens of millions of users to improve its existing features and validate its need for new ones.

Such is the case with Maps. A map service can only be improved when millions of daily users have thousands of daily Whiskey Tango Foxtrot moments with its directions and data.

iOS Maps has a built-in system that allows users to report problems. It seems to be working. Three days after iOS 6 shipped, one of the first map problems I spotted was fixed: Boston Common had been moved to the actual site of the city’s signature 350-year-old 50-acre park, and was no longer somewhere in the food court of an indoor mall a mile away.

(But please, Apple: the 170-year-old horticultural garden next to it is the “Public Garden,” not the “Public Gardens.” Okay?)

Overall, Maps is in the same shape it was in when I wrote about it a week ago. It’s a gorgeously-designed turn-by-turn navigator. The 3D flyover maps add instant clarity to your understanding of a neighborhood. It’s a damn shame that the app can no longer help you get from A to B via public transportation.

And! You can’t really trust any function that relies on its point of interest database. If you ask the app (or Siri) to navigate you to “the AMC movie theater in Framingham” without providing it with the precise address, Maps might send you to a Loews multiplex several towns away...simply because it doesn’t know about any of the movie theaters in Framingham. Or it might send you to an AAMCO station, or to the home of Angelo and Maria Amcaro.

But it’s getting better and better. And some regions seem to be working better than others. Friends of mine in other parts of the US insist that Maps has never given them a lick of trouble. It’s also been said that the data for China is terrific.

Those of us who don’t live in China or near my friends’ houses will continue to backstop iOS 6 Maps’ features with the web editions of Google Maps (maps.google.com) and Nokia Maps (m.maps.nokia.com). I’ve been an outspoken fan of the free Waze app since I started using it early this summer, and I was glad to see Tim Cook single it out in Friday’s letter. You should also check out my favorite for-pay alternatives: Motion-X Drive ($.99, plus $9.99 a year for turn-by-turn directions).

Apple’s definitely on the right track with Maps. I’d only be concerned about the app if its features were hard to use and its maps and directions were difficult to read. As-is, the app’s problems are limited to its dataset. From the user’s perspective, that’s the easiest problem to fix. So long as Apple continues to find and correct mistakes in the data, the service will continue to improve, as though by magic.

Contrary to what some over-reaching critics have said, the idea that Apple banished Google Maps from iOS as part of a childish blood feud with the company is ridiculous. Apple almost had to build their own mapping service.

Plus, their five-year agreement to include Google Maps data in iOS was coming to an end and I doubt that Apple ever seriously considered renewing it. Google puts restrictions on how an outside company can use their services...and honestly, they ought to. The Google Maps product is the result of a huge initial and ongoing investment, as well as an admirable amount of early vision back when digital mapping products shipped with a thick pile of CD-ROMs. It’s a valuable asset that Google should use to increase the value of their own products, not those of a direct competitor.

From Apple’s point of view, continuing to use Google Maps would have meant either continuing to have an iOS navigation service with a fraction of the capabilities of Android’s, or making a lot of concessions to Google. If the search company didn’t try to exploit their ongoing access to the most popular single handset in the world to improve their search, mapping, and ad-targeting products, they would have been nuts.

That situation certainly wasn’t going to work for Apple. Not when you consider that they had enough cash on hand to buy and build their own map services...and enough customer goodwill to weather the storms of getting it all up and working.



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