Updated 6:20 p.m. EDT, Saturday, September 29, 2012
Apple CEO Tim Cook publicly apologized Friday for the problems users around the globe have run into with Apple Maps, the company’s new default mapping software for the iPhone and iPad, problems that have ranging from completely inaccurate directions to botched 3D imagery showing psychedelic melting roadways and bridges.
“We are extremely sorry for the frustration this has caused our customers and we are doing everything we can to make Maps better,” Cook writes.
Cook’s apology was undoubtedly a powerfully symbolic move, especially to the Apple faithful —- an admission that the most valuable company in the world and the most successful tech company of the past decade, a company often valorized for its perfectionism, is capable of making mistakes, gigantic ones at that, as well as owning up to them.
Though largely unexpected, especially the part recommending iPhone and iPad users try out competing companies’ map apps, Cook’s apology and Apple’s admission of error wasn’t unprecedented: Apple earlier this year apologized for dropping out of an eco-friendly product registry (it later returned) and sort-of expressed regret for the reportedly inhumane working conditions at Chinese factories of electronics supplier Foxconn, where Apple products and other companies’ products are assembled.
But Cook’s apology — even his suggestion that users of Apple devices running iOS 6, the new mobile software that contains Apple Maps by default, turn to Google Maps and Microsoft’s Bing for location data while Apple sorts its mapping issues out — is mostly just that: A symbolic move. It doesn’t mean Apple users’ problems are solved, nor that the company’s map software or business problems are fixed, either. Far from it.
Because no matter how hard it will be for the company to repair its glitchy Apple Maps app (digital mapping experts say it’ll likely be highly difficult) repairing its reputation after this will be harder. Here’s why:
1. You’re still stuck with Apple Maps by default
One of the most interesting things about Cook’s apology note over Apple Maps is how he openly endorses the competition, naming and linking to Google Maps, Nokia Maps, the Microsoft Bing app and the AOL Mapquest app. Cook even points out that although there’s no stand-alone Google Maps app for iOS devices yet, there’s a way to pin the Google Maps mobile site, or any other mobile website for that matter, as an icon to the front screen of the iPhone and iPad, simulating an app.
But what Cook conspicuously omits is the fact that Apple still won’t let users make any of these options the default mapping app on the iPhone or iPad.
This means that even if users take Cook’s advice and pin the Google Maps mobile site to their front screen or downloand the Bing app, any time a user clicks on a link to a specific address someone sends them via email or message, or when the user clicks on an address that appears in another app such as Yelp, the adress will still automatically open up in Apple Maps.
What that comes down to is that there’s no way to get around opening Apple Maps at some point or another if a user has a new Apple device or upgrades to Apple’s iOS 6 operating system on their older devices.
At the same time, its clearly possible for users to switch back to another mapping app (Google Maps) if they are willing to jailbreak their device, or hack it, which Apple vehemently objects to and which voids a user’s Apple device warranty.
If Apple were really “doing everything we can to make Maps better,” as Cook states at the top of his apology, the company would allow users the option to make another mapping service the default.
2. The show must go on
Apple is still shipping out Apple Maps along with its iOS 6 software on its new devices and continues to advertise for Apple Maps on its website.
No doubt Apple is relying on the relative novelty of Cook’s apology and the fact that the company’s every micro-move is followed closely by mainstream national and international media outlets to convey its message of regret about the Apple Maps mistakes, but the company is still providing customers knowingly defective software without reverting to Google Maps or taking any other steps to warn customers about the consequences of an upgrade.
Apple could notify customers that Apple Maps would wipe Google Maps when users upgrade to iOS 6 and update the description of its software (which appears when a user navigates to their device’s “Settings: General: Software Upgrades” section), an idea floated by tech The Verge’s news editor Tom Warren.
I’d like to see Apple change the iOS 6 update notification to make it clear to consumers about the Maps and YouTube changes— Tom Warren (@tomwarren) September 28, 2012
Cook’s apology, combined with the fact that Apple continues to advertise its Apple Maps software as one that “may” be “the most beautiful, powerful mapping service ever,”* sends, at best, a conflicting message about what customers can expect when they buy a new iPhone or a new iPad or upgrade to iOS 6 on their older devices.
3. Apple is worried about its reputation
Apple could have stayed the course and stuck with its original statement in response to customer complaints, that Apple Maps is a work-in-progress and users should just be patient, or better yet, help Apple out by reporting all the problems they see.
Instead, faced with a growing chorus of critics and worse still — becoming the butt of a widely known and ongoing joke around the world, Apple did what it thought it had to do to save face: Cook sucked it up and said Apple messed up, understood the magnitude of its errors, and was attempting to fix them in as expedient and unobtrusive manner that didn’t simultaneously further compromise Apple’s business.
But by validating the criticism of its mapping software, Apple may have actually only further damaged its own reputation. Investors, for one group, didn’t seem particularly moved by Cook’s apology, and if they were, it was in the wrong direction, with Apple shares trading down 1.29 percent hours after the apology on Friday and at the time of this piece’s publication.
Further, Apple just gave free publicity to a bunch of non-trivial competitors in the mapping space, including its former ally Google. While those mentions, particularly the one of Google, may or may not end up helping smooth things over between the two companies and even spur Google to work double-time to get Google Maps back on the iPhone and iPad as a stand-alone app, the more likely outcome is that it will only highlight to competitors one of Apple’s most glaring new weaknesses: Poor quality maps.
Competitors would be smart to take this signal as one that Apple can be defeated in the mobile mapping arena, which is only becoming more important to increasing numbers of smartphone owners around the globe.
Already, some small startup digital mapping contenders like D.C.-based MapBox are eyeing Apple’s map failure and its dismissal of Google Maps from the iPhone and iPad as a window of opportunity to gain a stronger foothold in the larger mobile geolocation services market. Apple itself names among the providers of its map data OpenStreetMap, a free digital world map created by volunteer cartographers from around the globe, but supporters of that project disavow Apple’s implementation of their data and are recommending alternatives.
While Apple’s apology may be an attempt to redirect the building narrative of Apple’s massive mapping failure straight out of the gate, it’s just as likely to backfire on the company and further exacerbate the notion that Apple is deficient in this area and that consumers are better off picking someone else. That’s after all, what Cook is telling them to do, at least for now.
Plus, an apology is a far cry from actually putting Apple’s money where Cook’s mouth is. As consumer tech analyst Ross Rubin, founder of Reticle Research tweeted Friday:
To steal a phrase from John Blutarsky. apologies “don’t cost nothin’.” engadget.com/2012/09/28/edi…— Ross Rubin (@rossrubin) September 28, 2012
*Late update: Apple changed the language on the description of Maps on its website, removing the claim that the new features “may make Apple Maps the most beautiful, powerful mapping service ever.” The description now reads: “All in a beautiful vector-based interface that scales and zooms with ease.”