It's a rare stumble for Apple. The much-anticipated iPhone 5 launch has been overshadowed by ridicule, as users circulate hilariously bad "mapfails" from the company's new navigation app.
Today, Apple CEO Tim Cook issued an apology to users for Apple's Maps app, admitting the post-Steve Jobs company had fumbled the ball on its marque product."We are extremely sorry for the frustration this has caused our customers and we are doing everything we can to make Maps better," Cook wrote in the letter posted on the company website.Users have found a litany of problems with the app. Some of its directions have been off, it misplaces well-known landmarks, and some of its depictions of real places are badly distorted—like the Brooklyn Bridge that seems to be melting into the water. Perhaps one little broken app can't really hurt an Apple-sized company that much; the story will likely be little more than a footnote on the story of how Apple climbed to the top of the tech world. Still, here's what Apple's map fail does say about the tech behemoth:
(Near-)perfection has its price.
If, as some have opined, corporations are indeed people, Apple just showed a rare flash of humanity, says Sarah Rotman Epps, analyst at Forrester Research, a market research firm.
"I think Mapplegate will pass, but it shows a crack in Apple's seamless veneer," she writes in a commentary on the debacle. That the company released such a flawed program is a jarring contrast not only with the high-profile iPhone release but also Apple's recent explosive success, like when it became the most highly valued company ever last month.
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In light of the company's perpetual success, Epps adds that the map debacle casts some light on the lofty expectations that Apple has earned for itself. "When other companies launch half-baked software, they get away with calling them 'beta,' " she wrote. "But consumers and journalists seem to expect perfection from Apple."
A fierce competition with Google
In choosing to make its own maps program, the company showed just how committed it was to moving its customers away from rival Google — enough to take a chance releasing an imperfect app that misplaces, among other things, the Washington Monument.
The fight, says Epps, is over the power of data.
"Apple doesn't want Google to have that data on its users and doesn't want to give Google the opportunity to serve location-based guidance," writes Epps.
One analyst says that, even with a flawed app, Apple was in fact showing strength by steering customers away from Google.
"I think that in the long run what they're doing is probably better for customers," says Pradeep Chintagunta, professor of marketing at the Unviersity of Chicago's Booth School, who specializes in technology. He points to the fact that Google did not want to provide iPhone users with some Google Maps features, like spoken directions, instead saving those goodies for Android phones.
In creating its own app, he says, Apple was telling Google that it refused to subject its customers to an inferior version of Google Maps.
...But it still must scramble to solve this problem.
The problem, of course, is that Apple ended up subjecting customers to an inferior maps app anyway. As Cook pointed out in his letter, Maps will improve as more customers use it, helping to improve the data that allows them to navigate.
Still, it has driven users to distrust the company. Some people with iPhones still running the old system have declared that they refuse to upgrade and risk losing Google Maps. Epps points out that this could hurt Apple in one of its strongest areas: continuity between devices.
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"Apple takes pride in avoiding the fragmentation that Android (and Windows) have, where consumers run different versions of the OS, which creates security gaps and problems for [app developers'] creating software for those platforms."While Apple develops updates, customers have a few alternatives. In his letter today, Cook pointed users to apps like Microsoft's Bing, MapQuest, and Waze, as well as the websites for Nokia maps and even — yes — Google maps.
But if it turns out to be the case that consumers don't update their OS, Apple has a serious problem. Apple takes pride in avoiding the fragmentation that Android (and Windows) have, where consumers run different versions of the OS, which creates security gaps and problems for ISVs (app developers) creating software for those platforms.
Danielle Kurtzleben is a business and economics reporter for U.S. News & World Report. Connect with her on Twitter @titonka or via E-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.