The Unanswered Question About Apple Maps

I agree with almost everyone else that Tim Cook was right to quickly apologize for the problems with Apple Maps.  If you're in the US, you can contrast his handling of the situation to the National Football League's handling of its referee lockout.  The lesson: Deny a problem and the public will feed on you like wolves on a crippled buffalo.  Acknowledge the problem and people will give you a second chance.  The apology is especially effective if it comes from a person (not a corporate statement) and sounds sincere.  Most of us want to be nice to one another, and a personal apology taps into that reflex.

So fine, I'm sure Apple will fix the app eventually, and in six months this whole thing will probably be a distant memory.

What I'm wondering about is a much more serious problem that may not be solved in six months, and that (unlike the Maps app itself) threatens Apple's long-term prosperity.  The question:

How in the world did Apple make a mistake like this in the first place?

I'm not talking about shipping an unsatisfying app; that happens to any company.  I'm talking about making an obviously underwhelming and unfinished app a centerpiece in a critically important new product announcement.  If you have an app that isn't perfect yet, position it that way.  Tell people that it's just getting started and needs more work.  Instead, Apple execs gushed about Maps on stage.  Scott Forstall made it the first feature in his iOS 6 demo, and spent more than two and a half minutes talking about it (link).  This sort of mismatch between message and delivery is a sign that Apple's product management and review process failed utterly somewhere along the line.

It's a little bit like NASA launching the space shuttle Challenger when people in the organization knew it might blow up.  The issue is not that there were flaws, it's that they went ahead with the launch despite the flaws.

Of course nobody has been killed by Apple Maps, so it's a very different sort of problem.  But both are related to organizational culture and business practices.  Like NASA's culture of safety, Apple is supposed to have a culture of great product functionality.  It's the center of what makes the company special.  That process failed spectacularly in the case of Apple Maps, and speaking as somebody who spent years reporting into the product management organization at Apple, there is absolutely no excuse for what happened.

Apple's marketing machine is so powerful that any major failure in a marquee feature gets magnified enormously.  Even Google can probably get away with a big feature failure or two; you expect Android to be a bit loose around the edges, and lord knows Google backtracks on initiatives all the time.  But Apple claims that it will amaze and delight us with its new products, and so people naturally expect greatness.  It's what justifies the intense coverage of Apple's announcements.

There are several possible explanations for what went wrong, all of them bad.  Maybe:

--The product managers on Apple Maps knew it had problems but didn't think users would care.  Or

--The managers of Apple Maps knew there were problems, and reported the problems, but were ignored by middle management.  Or

--The middle managers reported the problems, but senior management ignored them.  Or

--Maybe Apple has become so insular and self-satisfied that no one there realized the difference between a good looking maps app and a usable one.

It comes down to this: are you incompetent, bureaucratic, or out of touch?

Screw-ups like this happened occasionally at Apple under Steve Jobs.  Someone once described to me the experience of being in a group that was pulled into a meeting with Steve where he said, "you let me down, and you let the company down."  My friend said it was one of the worst feelings ever, and it also resulted in job changes for the people responsible.  That may be something Tim Cook will need to do.  But he also needs to ask some deeper questions.  Is this just a failure of a particular manager or team, or is there a cultural or process problem that needs to be fixed?  That's a very tough question to answer.  You don't want to mess up the culture and practices that Steve left behind, but at the same time you can't permit this sort of mistake to become a routine event.

When I was at Apple back in the 1990s, before Steve returned, we had a joke we told on ourselves:

Q:  What's the difference between an Apple salesman and a used-car salesman?
A: The used car salesman knows when he's lying.

Apple needs to be sure it doesn't slip back into that old habit.

Judging Apple: It's Really (Still) About Steve

It's been interesting to watch the passionate reactions flow back and forth about Apple's iPhone 5 announcement.  Most of them fall into two camps:

-Apple is failing.  The announcement was a boring disappointment, Apple is falling behind on features, and its execution is deteriorating.  Just look at the mapping app in iOS 6.


-The Apple haters don't get it.  Look at the huge sales, Apple has always focused on functionality over feature list, and you have no idea how impressive it is that they packed that much circuitry into something so thin and elegant (link).  Oh, and that map thing is a tactical retreat to get a better long-term future.

Both sides have some valid points, but I think what's driving the peculiar energy in the debate is a question that almost no one's putting on the table, and that no one can answer yet: Can Apple without Steve Jobs still put lightning in a bottle?  Can it come up with that new category-busting product, like the iPhone and iPad, that overturns whole industries and makes us all nod our heads and say, "yes, of course, that's how the future should be"?

I think the Apple defenders generally believe that Apple can do it, and judge the current announcements as the normal incremental steps Apple takes between product revolutions.  The Apple critics don't take it for granted, and are studying each announcement for signs of bottled lightning.  When they don't get it, they feel uneasy, and that colors their comments.

The reality is that we don't know what the new Apple is capable of.  It's unfair (and unrealistic) to expect magic in every announcement.  The market can't absorb that much change, and no single company can produce it.  But until Apple rolls out a new category-changing product, we can't know if it is truly the same power it was before Steve died. 

Apple today is huge, rich company run by a bunch of middle-aged white guys who drive very expensive cars (link).  Like any company run by a homogenous team with low turnover, it makes them potentially vulnerable to getting out of touch with the real world.  That was also pretty much true before Steve died, but most people trusted that he had the mystical power of product design that enabled him to discern new product categories and make brilliant decisions about feature trade-offs.  We don't know if his acolytes can do that.  Is there a process for brilliance, or did that pass away with the founder?

When Apple made mistakes in the past, people trusted that it was an aberration that Steve would soon fix.  Now when there's a mistake, I think there's fear in many minds that this isn't an aberration, it's the new normal for Apple; that the company is turning into a big successful outfit that often does good incremental work but also makes big glaring errors because of inertia or internal politics, and is too self-absorbed to see them before they go splat in public -- like the abortive decision to withdraw from Epeat green certification (link), like the rescinded staffing changes in the Apple stores (link), and like the mapping situation.

Apple's success makes it a target for huge, powerful competitors: Samsung, Google, Microsoft, and others. Its ultimate defense has always been its ability to change the rules, to alter the competitive landscape in ways that put the other guys at a lasting disadvantage.  If Apple has lost its ability to change the world, the fear is that it'll become the business equivalent of the battleship Bismarck: a stationary target as more and more business firepower is concentrated against it.

We don't yet know what the new Apple can really do, and it'll take another two years or so to find out for sure.  Until then, we should expect the passionate debate between the faithful and the skeptics to be renewed every time Apple announces anything.  Just keep in mind that the debate won't really be about the products.  It'll really be about Steve.