Look, it’s very possible that you’re tired of reading things about Apple’s Maps issues at this point. I understand, really I do. If so, then just click this and close this tab.
There has been a lot of uneducated criticism and blind defense of the way Apple has handled Maps over the last week or so and I do feel that some perspective is in order. I spent countless hours testing, comparing and pondering maps over the course of the iOS beta for my eventual review and I’ve been using maps on phones for a very long time, even before they could really be considered ‘smart’. Maybe that gives me a bit of cachet when talking about mobile maps, and maybe it doesn’t. But I have come to some conclusions.
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The simple fact of the matter is that Apple absolutely had to implement its own mapping solution. The situation with Google was untenable and neither side was going to benefit from the partnership in the way that they wanted. Read John Paczkowski’s piece on it today, or David Pogue’s, for more reasons why, but the heart of the matter is that Apple and Google wanted things from one another that the other was not going to provide, period.
So Apple made a move with timing that John Gruber feels was inevitable and — given the timetable that he outlines — I’d tend to agree. It ditched Google’s maps for its own solution. And its own solution was not ready, not by a longshot.
The reason that Apple deserves to be taken to task on its execution of Maps — despite the fact that it most certainly had to take control of them — is that Apple is now a services company as much as it is a hardware company.
Looking at its balance books won’t show you that. It makes a break-even number from iTunes, a pittance on iCloud (probably, it doesn’t disclose this separately but the whole category isn’t large) and services like FaceTime and iMessage likely cost it money.
Still, those services are essential components of its iOS (and Mac) products just as surely as the physical pieces of the devices are. Apple convinces people to purchase its devices with promises of cloud backups and pain-free syncing. It offers iMessage and FaceTime as ways to communicate more easily than ever before, free of carrier fees. And, for the most part, people are beginning to rely on those services as a given.
But they’re not, are they? The reason I write articles about iMessage or iCloud email outages (and they happen at frequent intervals) is that Apple needs to be held accountable for its services if it’s going to be a services company.
iMessage has a safety net, because users fall back to SMS messaging on carriers. But you should have seen my tips inbox and Twitter feed light up with complaints and confusion from users the last time a big outage occurred, despite that net. Teens who use iPods as phones, iPad users and even iPhone owners without texting plans — they were certainly affected. And that’s not to mention iCloud mail outages, which also happen regularly enough.
Thankfully, Apple’s most essential iCloud service for iDevice users, especially those who just want things ‘to work’, has proven to be relatively solid. iCloud backups are absolutely essential to the appeal of iDevices and will quickly become insanely important to users as it will likely be the only place their iDevices are storing data. iOS 5 and iOS 6 are computer-free operating systems. A user never needs to have touched a computer to use, back up, move devices and restore their data. That’s powerful and it’s a usage pattern Apple has encouraged.
That’s why it’s essential that Apple takes pains to ensure its seamlessness and security. Just ask Marco Arment about iCloud backups and how much of a given they’ve become for many of us.
Which brings us to Maps.
Maps are just as essential as any of Apple’s iCloud services. A vast amount of Apple’s hundreds of millions of iDevice users treat maps as a core staple, not a bonus feature. For many people, their smartphones might as well look like this:
Maps is an essential feature of the iPhone, and smartphones in general. It needs to be there and it needs to be right.
Yes, it was tactically necessary for Apple to switch to providing its own maps, but it still needs to be held responsible for that decision. Taking Apple to task on the execution of its maps product isn’t persecution (as long as its executed with real data and not hyperbole) and any defense of its reasons needs to take into account that a lot of people who don’t give a flying fart about Apple’s corporate strategy are being affected here.
Apple launched into PR response in what is record time for the company (it waited 22 days to hold an event after ‘antennagate’ broke), issuing a statement to All Things D the day after the reviews of iOS 6 started hitting. “We launched this new map service knowing that it is a major initiative and we are just getting started with it,” the statement said. “We are continuously improving it, and as Maps is a crowd-based solution, the more people use it, the better it will get.” Apple later told Pogue: “We own this; we manage the vendors. This is no one’s issue but ours.”
That being said, don’t count Apple out yet. This is a different company from the one that launched MobileMe. It’s a lot larger, for one, and has shown a willingness to continue growing both through hiring and acquisitions. It’s a company that knows its future is in cloud services and that its mobile devices will be the primary computers of the next generation. So I would caution any gloating competitors about getting too comfortable.
In the end, the customers will win as there will be a choice available to them and competition breeds progress. But, in the short term, those same customers lose as Apple gets its act together with maps. Apple’s attitude seems to be one of contrition and action, so hopefully we’ll see improvements soon.
The real test of whether Apple has learned its lesson won’t come with the improvements of Maps, those are a matter of iterative improvement, something it excels in. It will be the next service, the next component of its devices that it chooses to build by hand. Search anyone?
Image Credit: AFP/Getty