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Oct 12

Apple Maps: adventures in crisis management

Some time after the big oil spill, we inevitably get the “open letter” from the oil company CEO. It’s a time-honored tradition in disaster management.

Following Apple’s maps lapse, Tim Cook has taken a page from the same playbook. His open letter appeared last week.

Tim’s apology was deep and sincere. He said that Maps fell short of Apple’s standards and pledged to make improvements quickly. He also suggested that customers download other mapping apps, implicitly saying that those apps are currently superior to Apple’s.

Many have reacted positively to Tim’s letter, finding it refreshingly honest.

Personally, it made me squirm a bit. Not because I prefer Apple to be untruthful, but because I want it to be even more truthful. Hold that thought for a minute.

The last time Apple had to deal with a public outcry of this magnitude was during the iPhone 4 “antennagate” controversy. Steve Jobs called a press conference, which in itself signaled the seriousness of the situation.

On stage, Steve acknowledged the issue, but he also put it in context. He talked about signal strength as an industry-wide issue. He noted that only a small percentage of iPhone users would have issues, but gave all iPhone 4 buyers a free bumper anyway. Antennagate fizzled.

When I say that I wish that Tim were more truthful, I mean that I wish that he would have put the Maps issue into context.

Apple has often stated that it can’t allow other companies to compromise its customers’ experience. (Remember Flash, may it rest in peace.) With Google Maps, Apple found itself in exactly that situation — at the mercy of its chief rival, no less. For two years, Google had made turn-by-turn directions available in Android phones, but not in iPhone.

So Apple certainly had valid reasons to replace Google Maps, but Tim’s letter made no mention of them. It read as if Apple had simply tried to make its own mapping app and shipped a flawed product. Sorry.

Of course, it would be a challenge to talk about Maps as a necessary business decision and well thought-out app when the end result is disappointing.

But that was the opportunity of this open letter — to put the issue in context, not to simply apologize. Tell us what it takes to build a mapping app and why Apple chose to make this move at this time.

One other problem. Though Maps are an iOS thing and not only an iPhone 5 thing, a huge number of potential Apple customers don’t get that distinction. For them, the news story is about the “flubbed launch” of iPhone 5. Those people need reassurance about Apple’s newest phone.

So I think Apple would have been better served if Tim’s letter touched on the positive as well. Like: “iPhone 5 continues to sell faster than any iPhone in history. It represents an improvement on every level. But yes, there are problems with the mapping feature in iOS 6. We’re sorry for that. Here’s why it happened, and here’s what we’re doing to fix it.”

I think most people appreciate an apology. But they appreciate information even more.

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  • http://twitter.com/PXLated PXLated

    Thought the same when I saw the Cook letter – I prefer the Jobs “take no prisoners” approach better. And, from what I’ve heard from friends using maps, it’s not really that bad. In fact it seems to be better than Google maps in many areas.

  • ksegall

    I have no problems with Apple Maps, nor do any of my friends. I’ll be curious to hear what ordinary users think (as opposed to writers looking for a story). Hopefully someone will do a a survey before too long.

  • http://twitter.com/DuhaimeC Chris Duhaime

    This post is spot on! This is exactly correct. The iPhone 5 is incredible, but that Maps did fall short. Doesn’t mean it won’t get better, doesn’t mean the launch is a flop. Thank you.

  • http://Marcos.Kirsch.com.mx/ Marcos

    The maps application is vastly superior to the old one in every single way – except in the quality/quantity of the back-end data. They should have taken some time to explaine that point, and how they plan on improving the data. Google’s had, after all, years of feedback from users.

    However, I live in Austin TX and have found Apple Maps coverage to be excellent in my area.

  • http://Marcos.Kirsch.com.mx/ Marcos

    It’s pretty good in areas with good coverage. But there are a lot of places outside of the U.S. that don’t even have streets. Google Maps covers them very well. So, if you live in San Francisco, sure, you may find Apple maps to be excellent.

  • Natalia

    The new maps work quite well in my area (Düsseldorf). Comparable / better than Google maps. I have a few minor annoyances (a few shops which have closed down over the last few months are still displayed, and the satellite imagery is poor for the most part if you compare it to Google’s).

  • Joost

    I don’t completely agree with you on this Ken.. I admire the fast response from Tim and the apology. If he were to “put the problem into context”, it might seem like an excuse. You say that with the press conference about the antenna issue, Steve “fizzled” all the commotion. However, I still see lot’s of comments from people on blogs and news websites where they keep referring to that issue. I completely agree that the issue was blown out of proportion, but the press conference seemed more like an excuses, although they were right. The problem is that even though you might be right, customers or potential customers still won’t believe you no matter how hard you try to explain.

    I completely see why Apple had no other choice than to ditch Google and start for themselves, but that doesn’t really matter to most customers. That was a strategic business decision which eventually may lead to a better service/product for the customer, but at this moment the service is just not on the same level as Google’s, which is completely understandable. But “blaming” this on Google seems to me a bit arrogant, just like the comment Steve made on the antenna issue (“you are holding it wrong”).

    I really like Apple as a company, but on thing that always felt a bit wrong was how they handled certain situations. For example, the situation in Europe concerning the two year warranty. They are making this such a big problem which isn’t doing them any good. But with Tim Cook I see progress here. He seems a bit less arrogant than Steve and is not afraid to admit that he/they made a mistake.

  • Joost

    Oh, and btw.. I’m having some trouble with the new Maps application. The app can’t find the street where my parents live in The Netherlands..

  • nuthinking

    Totally agree Ken. Looks like we are too picky sometimes, but expectations should always be at the highest when we are talking about Apple.

  • nuthinking

    The question is: Would have Steve shipped the new Maps?

  • nuthinking

    Tried it here in UK a couple of times and really struggled to find some locations.

  • sarumbear

    If Tim Cook was serious about his apology, Apple would have released the old Google Maps app by now. What Tim Cook said is: “We simply can no longer allow Google to treat iOS below Andrioid any longer, even if our customers suffer along the way.”

    Read ‘The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers’ and see why Apple is acting the way it is.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Rise_and_Fall_of_the_Great_Powers

  • http://twitter.com/21tigermike Michael A. Robson

    What? Your suggestion would give less incentive to the Apple Maps team to hurry it up, and give less incentive to Google to work on their own Maps app. Terrible idea. The actual app is decent. This isn’t even an apology, it’s mostly PR spin. He’s just reassuring users that Maps will quickly get better, and if anyone is upset they can download another app or use Bing/Google as bookmarks. Here’s the trick: they won’t.

    People aren’t whining, the press is whining. People will use the Maps app. Why? Because they have to. And it’s faster and smoother than the old Maps app.

  • sarumbear

    Is:

    a) “give less incentive to the Apple Maps team to hurry it up”
    b) “give less incentive to Google to work on their own Maps app”
    c) “reassuring users that Maps will quickly get better”

    helping the ‘customer’ in any way so far?

    When one makes a wrong move, they reverse that. There is nothing stopping Apple to offer the old maps app available via an iOS update. They have one year left on their contract with Google. It won’t even cost them a penny.

    You are correct on one thing though: “This isn’t even an apology, it’s mostly PR spin.”

  • Bruce

    Question: it would be interesting to know how many IPhone 5 owners are actually using Maps. Even more intriguing would be knowing how many iPhone owners (3G through iPhone 5) owners use Google Maps. I bet the statistics would be stunningly low.

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