Apple's apology tour

CEO Tim Cook says he's really, really sorry for botched Maps app. Somewhere, Steve Jobs is raging

By Andrew Leonard

Published September 28, 2012 8:00PM (EDT)

After reading Apple CEO Tim Cook's groveling apology for the manifold imperfections of Apple Maps I had half a mind to return to Berkeley's Apple store and deliver a stern I-told-you-so to the employee with whom I sparred last week.

But I soon thought better of my rash plan, for fear that an apoplectic Steve Jobs may even now be returning from the grave to wreak fiery vengeance on his simpering, pusillanimous heirs. Apologizing is not the Apple way, and the revered founder is surely pissed. Best to lay low and avoid becoming collateral damage.

Besides, the discourse over Apple Maps has moved far beyond the simple outrage that Apple's newest iPhone and new mobile operating system upgrade force upon users an app that the New York Times' David Pogue, a writer not known his harsh stance on Apple products, said "may be the most embarrassing, least usable piece of software Apple has ever unleashed." No, today's debate centers on whether Tim Cook was wrong to apologize!

Believe it or not, there is an argument to be made here. The most cogent version I've seen comes from Christopher Mims, writing at the Atlantic's spiffy new business and technology site, Quartz.

Mims places Apple's decision in the context of a long-term strategic fight with Google. According to Mims, Google would not give Apple access to the turn-by-turn driving directions software that Google developed for its Android Google Maps app, because Google didn’t want to give away a competitive advantage. Apple, therefore, had no choice but to forge ahead on its own, even if that meant users would run into some bumps in the road. But no worries, since the only way to get better is to take advantage of crowd-sourced user testing.

Jobs would have explained to the public that mapping is a uniquely difficult problem, and that the only way to build your own maps database from the ground up -- one that could ultimately lead to a product superior to, or at least usefully different from Google maps -- is to put it out in the wild and have millions of real users test it.

... Apple made the obvious choice. Customers are understandably upset that this means the maps app on their new iPhones is worse than it was on their old ones. But what Jobs understood is that sometimes you come down from the hill you’re on in order to ascend a much greater peak in the distance.

Mims also argues that back when Google Maps started out, it was buggy too. After launching in 2005, Google Maps required four long years before it was more popular that the pioneer, MapQuest.

I'm glad Mims reminded us of Google's long climb to preeminence. Because it also reminds us of how Google got there -- by being the best Maps application on the Web! That's called earning it the hard way, and there's a big big difference between getting to the top through sheer excellence, versus leveraging your control of a popular operating system to force crap on your users whether they want it or not. And, to add insult to injury, at the same time telling them, "Oh, yeah, it's got some bugs, hey, why don't you fix it!"

Mims may be correct to argue that in the long run, Apple made a strategically smart decision (although the jury is definitely out on that question). But in the short run, Apple screwed up. It delivered an inferior user experience to customers who have come to expect the highest possible quality -- who line up to buy Apple products because they're convinced they're going to get the best gizmos money can buy. While it's true that Steve Jobs most likely would not have scrambled to apologize for annoying those users, it also seems equally likely that Jobs would never have allowed the iPhone 5 and iOS 6 to ship with something that one of Apple's biggest fans has labeled "the least usable piece of software Apple has ever unleashed."

Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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