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.


Sameer said...

Thought provoking

Unknown said...

Yes, thought provoking, but I largely disagree. I actually think the app in terms of usability is great (perhaps even better than Google Maps, but I haven't done a full comparison). In my view the problem is input data, i.e. the maps themselves. I don't know where Apple got their data from, but I heard the name TomTom, a Dutch satnav manufacturer. I think that the mapping data is good enough for a satnav in a car. In a car, people don't look at whether or not parks and little waterways and anything else is displayed correctly. They look at the road. Try to use that same data to create 3D models of the world and you'll obviously get in trouble. It might also be that Apple used what they had, and it wasn't good enough. This doesn't necessarily show miscommunication in the company (Scott Forstall might be hoping/expecting when he made the announcements in June that everything would still be improved to acceptable levels)


Michael Mace said...

Thanks for the comment, Pieter. I think you make a very good point about satnav in a car, and I agree with your diagnosis of the problem. But I don't think that gets Apple off the hook.

The biggest problem I have is not that Scott announced Maps in June, it's that he made Maps the first thing he promoted during the product announcement in September. Had no one at Apple noticed by then that Maps wasn't working all that well? Was no one responsible for comparing it to Google Maps? Did no one say "gee, Scott, maybe we don't want to feature that app prominently because it's not working all that well"?

Or did they say that, and the execs just failed to listen?

I agree with you that the biggest flaws are probably in third party data that Apple obtained, but who at Apple signed off on that data? Who tested the product? The bottom line is that the CEO just had to apologize in public for the poor quality of a flagship feature. If the folks at Apple are not responsible for preventing that problem, I don't know who is.

Anonymous said...

How can they get so out of touch? Well, I don't know how one is to be in perfect touch with every street and venue in the world, sometimes you simply don't have enough data to be "in touch" and releasing the app gives you that data.

Unknown said...

@Michael: you are right, it might have been better if they had not given the Maps app such a prominent spot. I must admit I did not see the announcements, I'm just judging the app on its merits. Taking the announcement in consideration you are definitely right in that somebody might/should have stepped in.

That said I do not think the Maps app is a total disaster. There is a lot to be done, and a lot to gain. What do you think of the idea that Apple simply did not have another choice? The turn-by-turn navigation in Android has been a feature that Google (obviously) deliberately withheld from Apple. Perhaps waiting longer would have only made the problem worse, and the gap wider?

Chan said...

This question actually slips in my mind.

I tried this since iOS 6 Beta 1. In our perspectives (Sri Lanka) that Apple did not give their best yet map data set to try it out in beta, but hope it would released the fllod gates when iOS 6 ships.

In Google Maps I found every darn corner of the lane in Sri Lankan streets are there, may be sometimes without the names. But interesting part is if you don't get bus routs and things either we could have find any road here just switching to Car or Pedestrian mode.

On top of that Google Maps seem to have very deep intelligent layer upon it. It had pictures of almost all the interesting places, any location, hospital, school, fine dining all sort of.. for years users have provided these to Google..

Now hows gonna provide them to Apple if no one can use the Apple Maps for any practical reason???

In Apple maps not even major cities are not mentioned so it basically have no use here at all

Can Apple fix that, I doubt that without going through with this mess for years..

But yeah the question remains, that no sane guy had from the Apple QA department had a look on the matter?

Strange, it slipped through them

Rohan Jayasekera said...

It may turn out to be untrue that "nobody has been killed by Apple Maps, so it's a very different sort of problem". See for instance How long will it be before iOS 6 Maps kills someone? at ZDNet.

Also, I have another unanswered question: would this have happened if Steve Jobs were still there? Antennagate and the flaws in MobileMe happened during his tenure, but he could hardly be expected to spot problems like those in his personal testing. In Maps he might have; I don't know -- but I'd bet that Tim Cook doesn't personally test everything before it ships and demand fixes where needed. Instead he probably relies on his subordinates, who in turn rely on theirs, and down to the level where people are afraid to own up to problems out of fear of their superiors' anger at having to scale back a release or delay a ship date. Steve Jobs was a great QA department, one with teeth, and that department is gone.

Horace the Grump said...

Interesting thoughts on Apple's possible business process failure - maybe they literally couldn't see the woods for the trees.

Where I live (New Zealand) the Maps app works find for directions - find/go to this specific address, but beyond that it is hopeless. We have a major football stadium called Eden Park - Apple maps can't find it - give the name of a hotel and the one I tried gave me the name of a similar hotel in Orlando!

So, yes, the new maps app seems to work for specific addresses and directions - like a Tom Tom... but in terms of relational data (place names, business names etc) it is very poor. And the turn by turn stuff is just great - Apple really nailed that.

I agree that Apple completely overcooked Maps in terms of the presentation to the public. If you contrast that with Siri, it was made abundantly clear that Siri was in beta and it couldn't do everything and its functionality is still limited.

How they play this over the next few months will determine whether your fears of institutional blindness are justified. Its a great app - but the problem isn't the app - its the underlying data...

And that for Apple, is a new problem to solve.

TDC123 said...

Apple is quite far behind in the Maps arena compared to Google and Nokia I wonder if Apple will get into a position where they will have too much on their plate and not be able to focus on their strengths.

Anonymous said...

Something that shouldn't be overlooked - that creating a mapping product on-par with Google's is just extremely challenging. The current issues with Apple Maps can't just be "fixed" in short order. It'll take at least a couple years and a huge investment just to sort out the accuracy and completeness problems. In addition to that, Google has crowd-sourced overlay data from the global population that took years to gather. Finally, if Apple is going to have street-view, they'd better start developing the car mapping technology and get some cars on the road. Maybe they should license the data from MS Bing instead! lol

Rob said...

@pieter I think you're missing the point. The app is crap if it fails to get you to the place you want to go.

However promising the usability may be, that's secondary.

Apple maps still can't find 'Paddington station, london' (although it has improved, and no longer sends you to Brisbane).

@anonymous testing maps is hard, but that doesn't excuse this release. It may be that a genuine beta test was needed. Apple have a year left on the google contract, so they could easily have released 'new maps' in the appstore and let people use it. That way, they get a forgiving beta audience who can get excited at the new features, and who will forgive the mapping issues.

Once it was up to scratch in the real world, then they could swap out the old maps app.

As it is, I was reduced to asking a real person in the street for directions when I was in London the other weekend [Gasp!]

btw: have you noticed that the captcha on this blog seems to be using streetview images, and getting users to give the numbers for gateposts...

Anonymous said...

Michael, thanks for the post. Here's my view.

1. Apple made a strategic decision to remove a considerable (and one of the remaining few in its ecosystem) dependency, that is on Google. Basic rationale: be in total control of all-important location-based data and services and deprive Google from running its critical and ad revenue-generating Maps on a huge install base of Apple products (not sure though if the deprivation is temporary and is technical or legal in nature).
2. With that in mind, the next Apple's decision is tactical - release its maps sooner than later, even if under-baked, and use all its formidable capital of credibility and respect (not to mention $$) to ride through the rough times with the app. It is possible there was an oversight (as in misstep) in Product Management or further up the chain of command, or perhaps there was underappreciation of a possible backlash, but I am convinced that this decision was by and large an informed one and not made in error.
3. The "mapping" challenge is worthy of a company like Apple, i.e. it is a serious one. I disagree that it is matter of months for Apple to bring their mapping app to the levels of Google or Nokia. I sense a whiff of arrogance in Apple's approach and am curious how they will pull through. TomTom's (more precisely, TeleAtlas') underlying map data are considered inferior to those of Google or Nokia (Navteq), and it showed (not to mention local search/POI capabilities). It takes years to build a robust E2E mapping/navigation/local search solution at the level of quality expected from Apple. With their virtually unlimited resources, Apple will surely “compress” the lead time but let’s not expect miracles. This is a good opportunity for competition to make some progress in their quest to catch up to their omnipresent and omnipotent rival. Alex.

Anonymous said...

I disagree.

The One (blessings and peace be upon him) said: Real artists ship. Since they shipped Maps, ergo they are artists. As artists, they are above reproach.

Another point is that it doesn't really matter whether Maps works or not. It was just intended as a bullet-point in a presentation. And, as long as people are told enough times how 'magical', 'revolutionary' or 'innovative' Maps is, then that is enough.

That's the kind of thinking that led to this latest problem. This is not unusual, it's just a manifestation of the mentality of this dysfunctional company (or should I say the 'assylum') - they all just sit around in committees endlessly debating what The One would have done and, otherwise, they put marketing spin above all else.

tatilsever said...

Have you actually used iOS6 Maps? Otherwise, commenting on the size of the problem based on short articles from tech pundits who will write anything that will get them clicks is a folly. These are the same folks that called 4S lackluster, orwrote glowing reviews for Nokia's WP8 phones even though not one of them was allowed to play with one.

Even though I totally agree that Apple could set the expectation a little lower, the quality of the maps ain't that bad to begin with. If you look at online forums there have been people complaining about maps from Google, TomTom and Garmin, so some users complaining about Apple's maps is no surprise.

You can take a look at the tumblr page where people are posting the big mistakes they see. Most of them are about bridges that don't look right in 3D, when 2D satellite photos got converted poorly and not yet tweaked or satellite photos in taken when the ground was covered by snow. These types of errors are just funny and users do not really take them seriously. Afterwards, most of the rest are about missing train stations in Europe (admittedly, not good at all, but I suppose it should be fairly easy to fix), a few stadiums mislabeled as parks, oil company office buildings labeled as gas stations (that happened to me with Google as well), missing building names in college campuses (roads and addresses are there at least) and some POIs not found, where Google's Maps might be failing at about the same rate, just not necessarily for the exact same POI.

If the situation was that bad, Motorola could have used any number of errors in its ad to poke fun at Apple. Instead, it had to cheat and use an address that does not exist in Manhattan and point to Apple dropping the pin in Brooklyn, where the same street address actually exists. My wife has upgraded and in one instance the directions Apple gives is more appropriate than Google desktop. (Taking a further exit on a freeway rather than taking a long winding mountain road.)

Overall, I think Apple is a close second behind Google in North America and it will be close enough in Europe once they add all the train stations. I am more curious about Asia, there were not that many postings from Asian customers in that same tumblr page.

Anonymous said...

I think there is a deeper problem which we must face.

To put this in context, back in 2007, Apple introduced their first iPhone. It was a media player with a built in camera and cell phone. That kind of thing had been pretty much done before (eg, the various Windows Mobile devices around at the time). But Apple took a different tack with the software and they packaged it all up in a stylish design. At the time, that was enough in the way of differentiation to allow the Apple marketing people to go into overdrive and they created a massive success.

That was 2007 - 5 years ago.

Nowadays, there are dozens of cell phones out there which, more or less, have the same functions as the latest iPhone. Nearly all of those competing products come with pretty software and nearly all of them are designed in an eye-catching manner.

Worse than that, the last few iterations of the iPhone have been sorely lacking in terms of innovation. On one view, the last few models were warmed-over rehashes of the same old thing, with nothing more than minor updates on the hardware side.

As for the software, Apple have been so devoid of new ideas that they have adopted the desparate tactic of copying from their own developers (eg, Maps, the Panorama functions on the camera, etc).

Why the lack of innovation?

I don't know, but I can guess.

My guess is that it has a lot to do with the way decisions are made within Apple. That is, Apple is now governed by committees of self-satisfied execs who share the primary concern of not damaging the franchise (out of fear of killing the goose which lays the golden stock options). They are doing alright, so why upset the Apple-cart (so to speak) by trying something new?

Thus, while new ideas may be generated internally (and a lot of R&D money spent on them), very few will make it into new products. Probably, in future, updates to the iPhone will be driven largely by attempts to catch up with what competitors are offering, rather than any genuine efforts to innovate.

Then again, Apple was always more about marketing than innovation, so perhaps nothing has changed?

Unknown said...

I can't believe Apple made a press release about having the most comprehensive maps application on the market. I am a Apple lover, but I even know that their maps application is incomparable to Googles maps. I was looking on the Webimax Complaints twitter to see if any other press releases announced the redaction of the statement. Its pretty funny that Apple can make claims and not even care about the consequences. That's power.

Unknown said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Chan said...

"Then again, Apple was always more about marketing than innovation, so perhaps nothing has changed? "


alex said...

Kicking out Forstall can be explained with your option 3:
-The middle managers reported the problems, but senior management ignored them.

Although other factors probably contributed.

Michael Mace said...

I agree, Alex. Reading between the lines of the story Apple leaked to the Wall Street Journal, it sounds like there had been other frictions. Which means Tim Cook is starting to put his own stamp on the company. That's normal after a CEO change.

Chan said...

Hi Mace

How things you must be busy with Zukira thing I didn't here you much lately. OK. Keep it up.

And when I read Gulan Gruman's Mobile edge,

The following rant came out of my keyboard, when I look at it, it seems this is still not much from the real truth, so I brought it up here too.

I don't know why this has to be this way..

Smartphones (PDA/Treo) were supposed to be smart in the 90' something when I fell in love with them but still they haven't acting such.

I have to carry around this 3 paper-weights (ok, fanboy) which does all the same but can't even find any of the remote roads (iOS 6) I want to get in (Isn't it that why I wanted a GPS?) because of this, or switch to a dumb Chinese phone which actually seem to be the only solution even on 2013. Can you believe this.

Here, in Colombo, number-portability is never heard of and the closest best I can get is a Sammy's S Duos if I ever want my work and personal numbers in one, then still I have to keep that cheap Nokia 1280 handy for

1. Not to die on me in middle of that remote vacation
2. To hang-on to my sweet long talks
2. To be able to contactable by my not so old friends
3. To type some garble in my Native Language


3. Finally, to be able to find that keyhole in the darkest gloomy hour.

So wonder who's the dumb *#&*!*? who named these as SMART-PHONES? I'm missing something here...?

Chan said...

Aiyo, blogger comment system sucks.. it gives an capchar error and posts it regardless. Sigh.

Please delete repeated