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Why Apple made the right decision with iOS 6 Maps

What would you have done with iOS 6 Maps if you were Tim Cook?

There is no shortage of problems with iOS 6 Maps. The Amazing iOS 6 Maps Tumblr

Imagine you are Apple CEO Tim Cook. You control the single most profitable phone on the market, the iPhone. You have full control over your mobile OS -- iOS -- and the applications that run on it.

Except that's not actually true. You don't have full control over your mobile OS, because two of your default applications rely heavily on technology and data provided to you by Google, your greatest enemy. I am talking, of course, about YouTube and Google Maps, which have been part of iOS since the very first iPhone.

Removing YouTube is simple enough. Google wanted full control of the YouTube app, and YouTube isn't competitive to your core business. There isn't a problem letting Google launch a YouTube app through the App Store. People can use their iPhones just fine without YouTube, anyway.

Maps though, is a different story. Mapping is a core function of any smartphone. Every person who has a smartphone has a need for maps. If Apple removed Maps from iOS completely, customers would start switching to other smartphones. It's just that important.

So if you're Tim Cook, you have two choices. You can either A) let your enemy Google continue to power your default Maps application, or B) you can build your own Maps app and kick Google to the curb.

This is the decision that Tim Cook and his team faced when they decided to jettison Google Maps as the default mapping application for iOS. Instead, Apple decided to build its own Maps application, powered partly by data from TomTom.

As many of you know by now, Apple Maps has been under fire since its release. The complaints are numerous: Maps doesn't come with transit directions, mislabels cities and other landmarks, forgets rivers and thinks farms are airports. There's even a popular Tumblr dedicated to the mistakes iOS 6 Maps makes.

iOS 6 Maps, while a beautifully-designed application, clearly wasn't ready for prime time. This shouldn't come as a surprise: Google Maps is more than seven years old, and Google employs more than 7,000 people on it, including the thousands of drivers who make Street View possible. Apple, on the other hand, is frantically hiring engineers to fix the gaping holes users have uncovered in Maps.

Let's go back to the original question: did Apple make the right decision with Maps? It's easy to say in hindsight that Apple should have stuck with Google or waited another year to release its own Maps app. However, consider the factors that Apple had to deal with:

  • Allowing Google to control a key piece of iOS was unacceptable. If Apple had no alternative to Google Maps, the search giant could have made high demands that Apple would have had to accept. Having no default Maps application is unthinkable for a major smartphone.
  • The longer Apple took to release its own Maps app, the more entrenched Google Maps would be.
  • The only way to test a new map application at a large scale it to release it to users. They will be able to find holes quicker than a small team of engineers.
  • A mapping application can only go so far without large amounts of user-generated data.

Even in hindsight, I believe Tim Cook and the Apple team made the right decision -- the only decision they could, really -- with Maps. Sure, they should have let users test out the application as a beta before releasing it on iOS 6, but that's not Apple's style. Besides, Google would have had plenty of time to dissect an Apple-built maps app and adapt its best features to Google Maps.

iOS 6 Maps is a disappointment any way you slice it. I have friends who refuse to upgrade to iOS 6 because of Maps. But Apple wasn't going to learn anything keeping Maps locked away for another year, and there was no way it was going to let Google control its mapping technology for a minute longer than it had to.

Apple's taking some serious blows for its buggy Maps app. But it made the right decision releasing it. Now it's just a question of how quickly Apple can fix iOS 6 Maps' many flaws and stem the negative press it has generated. Apple's probably going to be feeling the pain for a while.