The biggest issue in the Apple universe this past week wasn't the successful rollout of the iPhone 5, but the perceived defects in a single app on iOS 6, Maps. It was enough to force Apple CEO Tim Cook to issue a rare, and clearly heartfelt apology for releasing subpar software. But I'll have much more to say about that subject in the next article.
Meantime, on this week's episode of The Tech Night Owl LIVE, we present cutting-edge commentator Daniel Eran Dilger, of Roughly Drafted Magazine and AppleInsider, to make sense of the "Mapgate" controversy that involves problems with Apple's home-built mapping service.
Avram Piltch, the Online Editorial Director of Laptop magazine, gives you his take on Mapgate, explains the reasons why he feels Android smartphones beat the iPhone in some areas, and gives you his first impressions of the latest generation of Nook tablets from Barnes & Noble.
When it comes to the iPhone versus Android subject, Avram's main point is that Google's platform offers more options both in hardware and software features. In large part, Apple isn't always first out of the starting gate on new features, and not necessarily because they can be fodder for a future product update. Sometimes it's because the new feature may not be fully baked, at least according to Apple. But that can be said for Maps as well, and therein lies the concern.
On this week's episode of our other radio show, The Paracast: Gene and Chris present prolific author Brad Steiger about some of his recent books, such as the Second Edition of his fascinating work on shape-shifters, entitled "The Werewolf Book: The Encyclopedia of Shape-Shifting Beings", and the Second Edition of "Real Ghosts, Restless Spirits, and Haunted Places." We'll also be talking about UFOs, space mysteries and conspiracy theories.
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When Apple demonstrated a new home-grown mapping feature for iOS 6 last June, I wonder how many expected how it would all turn out. Certainly it was clear why Apple made this move. It's all about Apple's soured relationship with Google, and the drive to dominate mobile platforms.
According to published reports, Apple wanted Google to add turn-by-turn navigation to their iOS mapping app. As negotiations soured, Apple was busy building Plan B, their own mapping service, which links to the data gathered by Tom Tom and other suppliers of navigation information.
You expect that the first version of any app, OS or service will have bugs. That's how things are. But, after eight years of Google Maps, people expected a minimum level of quality. For all sorts of reasons, the flaws with the new mapping product were sometimes laughably obvious. It's not just about melting bridges in the new Flyover viewing option, but missing destinations and landmarks, and sometimes putting a city in the wrong country.
So we had, for example, searches for Columbia, SC, the state capital, misdirected to another country. In passing, that particular defect doesn't happen quite as often as of the time this article was written. So maybe Apple is beginning to fix some of the worst ills.
Since the problems were so blatant, and readily demonstrated with simple screen shots, the whole affair got far more attention than most software bugs. How could Apple, a company that prides itself on offering near-perfect products, tolerate such a blatant failure? Would Steve Jobs have allowed Maps to be released? Is Apple losing its edge?
But sometimes facts and reality don't converge. Apple has had ongoing problems with online services for years. Don't forget that MobileMe left the starting gate in severe disrepair, and iCloud has had ongoing problems. A lot of this began under the watch of Steve Jobs.
Don't forget that the first release version of OS X arrived with serious limitations, forcing Jobs to admit that it was primarily meant for developers and power users. Apple would fix it over time. The Siri voice recognition software, developed while Jobs was still running Apple, continues to carry a Beta label. We know it's not perfect, although that hasn't stopped some people from filing class action lawsuits anyway.
Now maybe Apple should have attached a Beta label to Maps as well. That marketing move would have cured a number of ills, at least in public perceptions. All right, you expect it to be imperfect, because Apple finally said so. Remember that Google is notorious for adding beta labels to loads of services, sometimes for years on end, but that's often used as an excuse for delivering a crappy product.
In all fairness, and despite its front and center defects, Maps works reasonably well at its core function of giving you directions to go from one place to another. No less than Consumer Reports magazine, which clearly has no love for Apple, pitted Maps against the Google equivalent. While CR concluded that Google offered a more mature product, the magazine's staff decided that, "both provide a good solution for standard software. We expect the competition between the companies will benefit customers with ongoing improvements."
Meanwhile, Apple CEO Tim Cook apologized for Apple's misstep, promising that things will get better. In a surprise move, both praised and criticized by the media, he also recommended other mapping apps and services, including Google's. It's not as if iOS users were ever saddled with only one choice, even when Google powered Maps. Apple has also changed the marketing message. Maps is no longer "the most beautiful, powerful mapping service ever." The new features are now described as delivering 3D views and Flyover images "all in a beautiful vector-based interface that scales and zooms with ease." Nothing is being said about accuracy.
This state of affairs has left plenty of opportunities for third parties to tout their mapping and search apps. For example, Where To? from FutureTap, provides local point of interest searches that continue to rely on Google's database, and can actually be launched from within Maps for iOS 6. Where To? is available from the App Store when you search for Navigation software. It's $2.99 for the core app, and another $.99 for the Augmented Reality module.
That Apple is doubling down on fixing Maps, and considering that even CR's review of the first version was far more favorable than I might have expected, clearly indicates that the Mapgate controversy isn't going to have a long shelf life. There are published reports that Apple is even now signing up former Google mapping developers to help flesh out the service. In a few months, many of the worst ills will be history, and the media can get on to finding something else wrong with Apple.
Should Apple have waited? Probably not. But Apple clearly misjudged the extent of the defects, and the extent of the fallout. They promised too much too soon. In retrospect, a Beta label would have done wonders towards reassuring customers that, yes, things will soon get better.
The Mapgate controversy is yet another example of Apple's PR miscues over the years. Despite having what is regarded as one of the best corporate communications departments of any company on the planet, sometimes the message gets lost, or isn't delivered properly.
When Steve Jobs was at the helm, he wasn't always ready to make a simple apology for something that went wrong, or just a misguided decision. When the first iPhone came out, at $599, Apple soon realized that it would be a hard sell against a subsidized handset after the initial demand died down. So they cut the price by $200, which set off a furor among the iPhone buyers who paid full price. In one of his classic offhand and unfeeling retorts, Jobs remarked that was the price of being the early adopter.
Apple soon relented, however, and granted those early adopters a $100 credit for their time and trouble, and, of course, for taking a risk on an unproven product. But you can be sure that Apple never did that again. The next year's iPhone was available for $199 and $299 with a standard two-year wireless contact, same as the competition.
The arrival of the iPhone 4 was announced with lots of hype about the unique antenna system that was touted as offering better reception. And it did, unless you held it the "wrong way," meaning that your hand covered the junction between the two ends of the antenna at the lower left edge of the handset. Suddenly reception quality dropped like a brick. In areas where network quality was marginal, you might lose a connection or be unable to get online.
In an unfortunate email sent to an iPhone user who complained, Jobs said to just hold the thing differently. It's the sort of offhand dismissal few corporate executives would dare, and it only inflamed those who had problems.
Apple PR got into the act, claiming that part of the problem was actually due to the incorrect readings for signal strength, based on a supposed flawed algorithm. The display problem was fixed in an iOS update, but the reception problems were still there.
In the end, Jobs hosted a press conference where he revealed the existence of a $100 million antenna testing facility, claiming that it was the laws of physics and not a product defect that caused problems when the "Death Grip" was invoked. In response to the Antennagate controversy, Jobs offered customers a free case. The case would not just protect the iPhone in case it fell, but would insulate the sensitive area of the antenna. At the same time, Apple temporarily posted videos showing that a Death Grip could also be invoked on other popular smartphones, although the hand positions were sometimes extreme.
Consumer Reports, ever on the search for online traffic and higher circulation, jumped into the fray with the claim that it was the iPhone 4 and only the iPhone 4 that exhibited a reception problem in their tests. In the face of evidence that this was just not so, CR stood their ground, and refused to recommend the product.
That, however, didn't stop sales, at least until anticipation grew for the next iPhone. But Apple got the message and devised a clever solution. They created a dual antenna system that was designed to automatically switch from one to the other, depending on signal strength. While something new for a smartphone, the scheme was inspired by the diversity antenna system used on most autos these days for their sound systems.
In retrospect, the smart aleck response from Jobs didn't help matters one bit. You can't blame the customer and expect them to continue to feel warm and fuzzy about you. Jobs either wasn't thinking, or depended on Apple's loyal, and sometimes fanatical customer base to see them through.
These days, however, Apple's every move is under more intense radar than ever. Consider the run up to the iPhone 5, where loads of articles were published that actually showed prototypes that looked real close to the finished product. Sure, maybe Apple quietly fed some of those stories to keep people talking. Or maybe, with ever more extensive supply chains, leaks are inevitable, so might as well take advantage of them. That didn't stop people, of course, from watching every second of the iPhone 5 rollout event, although some people were disappointed because they heard it all already.
Tim Cook's apology for the Mapgate affair is considered a textbook example of how a corporation should respond to a problem. There is the personal apology, and the promise to do better in the future. It may well be that the mapping defects are blown out of proportion, the consequence of the 24/7 news cycle and Apple's prominence in the industry. But Apple did the right thing to get in front of the issue.
That, in itself, shows Cook to be a better master of the company's message than the mercurial Jobs. You can argue whether Apple will no longer be as creative, no longer set the trend in the years to come after the repertoire products Jobs oversaw have been used up. But I'd bet that Apple will no longer allow a misstep as blatant as Mapgate in the future, or at least they'll try to avoid over-promising and under-delivering.
THE FINAL WORD
The Tech Night Owl Newsletter is a weekly information service of Making The Impossible, Inc.
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