iOS 6 map mess was no big surprise to Apple

Tim Cook took a calculated risk -- getting rid of Google Maps was more important than delivering a less-flawed Apple Maps app.

Charles Cooper Former Executive Editor / News
Charles Cooper was an executive editor at CNET News. He has covered technology and business for more than 25 years, working at CBSNews.com, the Associated Press, Computer & Software News, Computer Shopper, PC Week, and ZDNet.
Charles Cooper
4 min read
Apple demos its new Maps app.
Apple demos its new Maps app at the iPhone 5 launch event on September 12. James Martin/CNET

After users this week discovered glitches in Apple's update to its mobile operating system -- the first to include the company's mapping technology instead of Google's Maps app -- the conventional wisdom had it that Apple acted in a very un-Apple-like manner by pushing live an obviously defective product.

On the surface, the episode also made for an intriguing story line: With Steve Jobs, the micromanager par excellence, no longer around to obsess over the smallest detail, might this constitute a first small weakening of the Apple juggernaut? In the year since Tim Cook became CEO, Apple watchers have peered closely for any signs of slippage under new leadership, and perhaps this was a harbinger of trouble at America's most highly valued company.

No doubt the images popping up on the Internet of misnamed cities and misplaced landmarks don't comport with the usual narrative surrounding Apple, a company that's enjoyed approving media coverage for metronomelike execution as it's redefined standards of excellence in its smartphone and tablet computing platforms.

You might conclude that Apple CEO Tim Cook was willing to upset some customers in order to eliminate Google Maps from iOS 6. James Martin/CNET

Now we're seeing how this iOS 6 map mess is an embarrassment for the company. Was it a surprise out of the blue, and will somebody's butt wind up in a sling as management performs the necessary postmortem?

Since Apple rarely comments about its internal processes, it's tempting to take creative license and speculate on how Apple managed to tolerate the delivery of such an inferior app in iOS 6. But the story is likely quite straightforward.

Apple could have kept Google's more reliable and mature mobile mapping app, but it made a strategic decision about something it needed to own and monetize. Put another way, getting rid of Google Maps was more important than delivering a less-flawed Apple Maps app and dealing with the grumbling.

Make that a lot of grumbling. And ridicule.

But how long is that going to last? Many may remember the heart attacks over "Antennagate," when some owners of the then-new iPhone 4 complained about weak or lost signal strength when they touched an area near the device's antennas. That also was supposed to be the end of the world as we know it. Nowadays it's just a footnote and Apple's shares are hovering near an all-time high.

And just as with Antennagate, Apple knows that it can commit resources to fixing the problems and count on the goodwill of its loyalists. The latest evidence: Across the nation people queued up outside Apple stores on Friday as the iPhone 5 went on sale. Why does anybody really need to do that? They don't, but this is like Woodstock.

Meanwhile, customers frequenting Apple stores were asked by Piper Jaffray about their purchase plans, and the map mess doesn't appear to have made an impact: 83 percent of iPhone 5 buyers said they were upgrading from another version of the iPhone compared with 73 percent for the 4S and 77 percent for the iPhone 4 -- and this even after two days of news coverage about glitches in the iOS 6 map app.

Judging by Apple's only comment so far, the company is comfortable with the idea that it can gradually fine-tune the rough spots in the near future.

Customers around the world are upgrading to iOS 6 with over 200 new features including Apple Maps, our first map service. We are excited to offer this service with innovative new features like Flyover and Siri integration, and free turn-by-turn navigation. We launched this new map service knowing that it is a major initiative and we are just getting started with it. We are continuously improving it, and as Maps is a cloud-based solution, the more people use it, the better it will get. We're also working with developers to integrate some of the amazing transit apps in the App Store into iOS Maps. We appreciate all of the customer feedback and are working hard to make the customer experience even better.

You can make the case that the maps controversy violates Jobs' determination to deliver the best user experience, but it's evident that getting into the market with a map app rival to Google -- even if it wasn't yet perfect -- trumped everything else.

As Mike Dobson, president of map consulting firm TeleMapics, said in a blog post, "There is no really quick fix for Apple's problems in this area, but this should not be news to anyone who is familiar with mapping and the large-scale integration of data that has a spatial component. Of course there appears nowhere to go but up for Apple in mapping."