Digging deeper into Apple's maps problem

Since my post last week, Apple’s iOS6 maps problem has become this year’s ‘-gate’ issue. Despite an incredibly strong iPhone 5 launch and a successful iOS6 launch, the share price has gone down and for the first time in recent memory, consumer satisfaction on an Apple product has dropped.

The issue, of course, is how this came to be. What we know now is this:

  1. Apple’s contract with Google was due to expire in 2013 but probably before iOS7 would normally be released.
  2. Apple did not inform Google they were dumping maps.
  3. Google and Apple had not agreed about adding turn-by-turn directions to Maps.
  4. This lack of agreement likely had something to do with Siri.
  5. The new maps app is poor with errors, missing data, some strange pictures and no walking, public transit or cycling directions.
  6. Google were taken by surprise and won’t have an Map app for iOS ready for some months.

Putting all this together it seems that the most likely scenario for this debacle is this: Apple wanted maps improved for obvious reasons but did not want to share all its technology with Google. Google have a competing platform so were likely unwilling to let Apple get far ahead with their maps baked into the operating system. Given this, Apple decided it would go it alone and, as is the Apple way, by stealth built their own maps licensing information from a variety of sources so as to avoid being tied in. In the process, they saw no need to tell Google of this in the hope that users would use the built-in maps. One reason for that is that usage helps build better maps and now Google has lost 100 million plus users whose activity is, if they use maps someway, helping Apple. And that usage comes not just from the Maps app but also from all the apps that utilise the Map API (including all those new transit apps). Matt Yglesias sees this is key to the whole battle. But more critically they avoided potential hold-up by Google sometime in 2013.

Even so, all this brinkmanship smacks of mistakes. Google misjudged Apple’s desire to go it alone possibly because they knew Apple could not have had a superior product. But, more critically, and related to this, Apple misjudged just how important it is for maps to be highly accurate and also just how confusing it is for consumers to have to switch to other apps. After all, while people may have lamented Apple not supporting Flash or the uselessness of is Passbook app recently, the Maps issue took away features consumers had. So there was degradation. And, as I said last week, it is the willingness of Apple to do that rather than be beholden to Google’s power a little longer that has spooked many.

[Update: Apple apologises. Actually, if one wants to, one could read this as a long over-due failure from a company trying to innovate rapidly. As I wrote the other week, we should expect more failure if Apple are doing their innovation job well.]

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