Apple’s $30B Maps


A short week after releasing the iPhone 5, Apple’s CEO publicly apologizes for the Maps fiasco and the company’s website updates its description of the new service. As the digital inspirations blog found out, the unfortunately emphatic description that once read:

Designed by Apple from the ground up, Maps gives you turn-by-turn spoken directions, interactive 3D views, and the stunning Flyover feature. All of which may just make this app the most beautiful, powerful mapping service ever.

becomes more modest:

Designed by Apple from the ground up, Maps gives you turn-by-turn spoken directions, interactive 3D views, and the stunning Flyover feature. All in a beautiful vector-based interface that scales and zooms with ease.

In his letter of apology, Tim Cook also reminds everyone of alternatives to his company’s product, and of easy ways to access Google and Nokia maps:

While we’re improving Maps, you can try alternatives by downloading map apps from the App Store like Bing, MapQuest and Waze, or use Google or Nokia maps by going to their websites and creating an icon on your home screen to their web app.

And Consumer Reports, after trying the new Maps found that, warts and all, they weren’t too terrible:

Apple uses maps from TomTom, a leading navigation company. We suspect many criticisms pointing to the map quality are misguided, as we have found TomTom to provide quality maps and guidance across multiple platforms. Instead, the fault may be Apple’s software applied to the TomTom data. […] Either way, in our experience thus far, this is a minor concern.
Bottom line:
Both the free Apple and Google navigation apps provide clear routing directions. Apple feels like a less-mature product. But as seen with the initial competing applications for the iPhone, we would expect updates to this new app over time–and Apple has promised as much. When getting down to the nitty gritty, Google provides a better overall package, but we feel that both provide a good solution for standard software. We expect the competition between the companies will benefit customers with ongoing improvements.

So… Normal teething problems, forgivable excess of enthusiasm from proud Apple execs, the whole media fireworks will blow over and everything will be soon forgotten — remember Antennagate?

One would hope so, especially if Apple’s Maps keep improving at a good pace.

But look at this graph:

Since the iPhone 5 release, and the Maps fracas, Apple shares lost about 4.5% of their value, that’s about $30B in market cap.

Fair or not, it’s hard not to fantasize about another course of events where, in advance, a less apologetic Tim Cook letter would have told Apple customers of the “aspiring” state of Apple Maps and encouraged them to keep alternatives and workarounds in mind. And where Apple’s website would have been modest from day one.

We’ll never know how Apple shares would have behaved, but they certainly wouldn’t have gone lower than they stand now — and Apple’s reputation as a forthright, thoughtful company would have been greatly enhanced.

This is more than piling on, or crying over spilled maps. We might want to think what this whole doing the right thing — only when caught — says about Apple’s senior management.

First, the technical side. Software always ships with fresh bugs, some known, some not. In this case, it’s hard to believe the Maps team didn’t know about some of the most annoying warts. Did someone or some ones deliberately underplay known problems? Or did the team not know. And if so, why? Too broad a net to cast and catch the bugs? Too much secrecy before the launch? (But Maps were demoed at the June WWDC.)

Second, the marketing organization. This is where messages are crafted, products are positioned, claims are wordsmithed. Just like engineers are leery of marketeers manhandling their precious creations, marketing people tend to take engineers’ claims of crystalline purity with, at best, polite cynicism. One is left to wonder how such a hot issue, Apple Maps vs. Google Maps, wasn’t handled with more care — before the blowup. And why, with inevitable comparisons between an infant product and a mature, world-class one, the marketing message was so lackadaisically bombastic.

And last, the CEO. Was trust in his team misplaced, abused? Were the kind of checks that make Apple’s supply chain work so well also applied to the Maps product, or was some ill side-effect of team spirit at play, preventing the much-needed bad news to reach the top?

We don’t need to know. But Apple execs do if they want the difficult birth of Apple Maps to be written in history as a wake-up call that put the top team back on track. I don’t want to think about the alternative.

Apple Maps: Damned If You Do, Googled If You Don’t

While still a teenager, my youngest daughter was determined to take on the role of used car salesperson when we sold our old Chevy Tahoe. Her approach was impeccable: Before letting the prospective buyer so much as touch the car, she gave him a tour of its defects, the dent in the rear left fender, the slight tear in the passenger seat, the fussy rear window control. Only then did she lift the hood to reveal the pristine engine bay. She knew the old rule: Don’t let the customer discover the defects.

Pointing out the limitations of your product is a sign of strength, not weakness. I can’t fathom why Apple execs keep ignoring this simple prescription for a healthy relationship with their customers. Instead, we get tiresome boasting: …Apple designs Macs, the best personal computers in the worldwe [make] the best products on earth. This self-promotion violates another rule: Don’t go around telling everyone how good you are in the, uhm…kitchen; let those who have experienced your cookmanship do the bragging for you.

The ridicule that Apple has suffered following the introduction of the Maps application in iOS 6 is largely self-inflicted. The demo was flawless, 2D and 3D maps, turn-by-turn navigation, spectacular flyovers…but not a word from the stage about the app’s limitations, no self-deprecating wink, no admission that iOS Maps is an infant that needs to learn to crawl before walking, running, and ultimately lapping the frontrunner, Google Maps. Instead, we’re told that Apple’s Maps may be  “the most beautiful, powerful mapping service ever.

After the polished demo, the released product gets a good drubbing: the Falkland Islands are stripped of roads and towns, bridges and façades are bizarrely rendered, an imaginary airport is discovered in a field near Dublin.

Pageview-driven commenters do the expected. After having slammed the “boring” iPhone 5, they reversed course when preorders exceed previous records, and now they reverse course again when Maps shows a few warts.

Even Joe Nocera, an illustrious NYT writer, joins the chorus with a piece titled Has Apple Peaked? Note the question mark, a tired churnalistic device, the author hedging his bet in case the peak is higher still, lost in the clouds. The piece is worth reading for its clichés, hyperbole, and statements of the obvious: “unmitigated disaster”, “the canary in the coal mine”, and “Jobs isn’t there anymore”, tropes that appear in many Maps reviews.

(The implication that Jobs would have squelched Maps is misguided. I greatly miss Dear Leader but my admiration for his unsurpassed successes doesn’t obscure my recollection of his mistakes. The Cube, antennagate, Exchange For The Rest of Us [a.k.a MobileMe], the capricious skeuomorphic shelves and leather stitches… Both Siri — still far from reliable — and Maps were decisions Jobs made or endorsed.)

The hue and cry moved me to give iOS 6 Maps a try. Mercifully, my iPad updated by itself (or very nearly so) while I was busy untangling family affairs in Palma de Mallorca. A break in the action, I opened the Maps app and found old searches already in memory. The area around my Palma hotel was clean and detailed:

Similarly for my old Paris haunts:

The directions for my trip from the D10 Conference to my home in Palo Alto were accurate, and offered a choice of routes:

Yes, there are flaws. Deep inside rural France, iOS Maps is clearly lacking. Here’s Apple’s impression of the countryside:

…and Google’s:

Still, the problems didn’t seem that bad. Of course, the old YMMV saying applies: Your experience might be much worse than mine.

Re-reading Joe Nocera’s piece, I get the impression that he hasn’t actually tried Maps himself. Nor does he point out that you can still use Google Maps on an iPhone or iPad:

The process is dead-simple: Add as a Web App on your Home Screen and voilà, Google Maps without waiting for Google to come up with a native iOS app, or for Apple to approve it. Or you can try other mapping apps such as Navigon. Actually, I’m surprised to see so few people rejoice at the prospect of a challenger to Google’s de facto maps monopoly.

Not all bloggers have fallen for the “disaster” hysteria. In this Counternotions blog post,”Kontra”, who is also a learned and sardonic Twitterer, sees a measure of common sense and strategy on Apple’s part:

Q: Then why did Apple kick Google Maps off the iOS platform? Wouldn’t Apple have been better off offering Google Maps even while it was building its own map app? Shouldn’t Apple have waited?

A: Waited for what? For Google to strengthen its chokehold on a key iOS service? Apple has recognized the significance of mobile mapping and acquired several mapping companies, IP assets and talent in the last few years. Mapping is indeed one of the hardest of mobile services, involving physical terrestrial and aerial surveying, data acquisition, correction, tile making and layer upon layer of contextual info married to underlying data, all optimized to serve often under trying network conditions. Unfortunately, like dialect recognition or speech synthesis (think Siri), mapping is one of those technologies that can’t be fully incubated in a lab for a few years and unleashed on several hundred million users in more than a 100 countries in a “mature” state. Thousands of reports from individuals around the world, for example, have helped Google correct countless mapping failures over the last half decade. Without this public exposure and help in the field, a mobile mapping solution like Apple’s stands no chance.

And he makes a swipe at the handwringers:

Q: Does Apple have nothing but contempt for its users?

A: Yes, Apple’s evil. When Apple barred Flash from iOS, Flash was the best and only way to play .swf files. Apple’s video alternative, H.264, wasn’t nearly as widely used. Thus Apple’s solution was “inferior” and appeared to be against its own users’ interests. Sheer corporate greed! Trillion words have been written about just how misguided Apple was in denying its users the glory of Flash on iOS. Well, Flash is now dead on mobile. And yet the Earth’s obliquity of the ecliptic is still about 23.4°. We seemed to have survived that one.

For Apple, Maps is a strategic move. The Cupertino company doesn’t want to depend on a competitor for something as important as maps. The road (pardon the pun) will be long and tortuous, and it’s unfortunate that Apple has made the chase that much harder by failing to modulate its self-praise. but think of the number of times the company has been told You Have No Right To Do This…think smartphones, stores, processors, refusing to depend on Adobe’s Flash…

(As I finished writing this note, I found out Philip Ellmer-DeWitt also takes issue with Joe Nocera’s position and bromides in his Apple 2.0 post. And Brian Hall, in his trademark colorful style, also strongly disagrees with the NYT writer.)

Let’s just hope a fully mature Maps won’t take as long as it took to transform MobileMe into iCloud.


Navigation’s Destination

by Jean-Louis Gassée

The frustrations began with the (many) limitations of the Pioneer after-market navigation system in the Toyota I use while in France. I can deal with the inscrutable UI and the belligerent touch screen—“resistive technology”, indeed–but I need up-to-date maps (which are clearly antiquated on this device) and a precise reading of my speed. European roads combine baffling speed limit changes and an aggressive deployment of automated radar cameras. You don’t want to rely on your car’s imprecise speedometer if you want to drive just at—or maybe just over—the speed limit.

I need a second opinion.

A quick walk to the Louvre Apple Store and I have my prize, the TomTom GPS adapter for my iPhone, 99€. I download maps of Western Europe—including speed limits—from the App Store for $74.99 and, while I’m at it, I spend another $5.99 for one month of real-time, over-the-air traffic updates. The download is horribly slow and fails at first, even with a reliable WiFi connection, but I finally get it running. Onto the windshield. The suction cup performs its appointed function; the tilt and swivel is commendably ergonomic; there’s even a Bluetooth pairing feature for handsfree calls, indispensible in France where the gendarmes are touchy about touching a cell phone while driving. Sound quality is below par, but it’ll do. I’m in business.

(As an aside, I would have liked to have used Google’s free turn-by-turn app on my Droid X, but the Verizon network is incompatible with the European “GSM” standard.)

We head to the Basque country. The TomTom displays clean speed readings and warns me about impending speed traps. Yes, it occasionally gets confused and suggests a slower pace even as the road signs disagree, but…close enough. The Pioneer…forget it.

Things take a turn for the worse when we drive from France into Spain towards Bilbao—we want to take a look at the Guggenheim museum.

(Photo courtesy of Gaspar Serrano;

It’s a 100 km (60 mi.) drive from the no-stopping border (a pleasant affect of the EU) on the smooth E70. But just past San Sebastiàn both GPS units go crazy. They don’t know this freeway. I expect as much from the aging Pioneer unit, but what about the TomTom map I just downloaded? Not knowing about some rarely used back-country lane is one thing, getting lost around a major new European freeway? It’s not as if this is a state secret.

Approaching Bilbao, I try to get detailed directions to the Guggenheim. The TomTom app’s POIs (Points of Interest) finds it immediately. The Pioneer unit has never heard of the museum. Maybe it’s too new: After all, it did just open…13 years ago.

So the standalone TomTom wins? Unfortunately, there are problems.

On our way back to Paris, the iPhone GPS adapter starts acting up. It won’t charge the phone and the “This accessory is not made to work with iPhone” message blinks on and off at random times. I re-mate the Bluetooth and it disappears for an hour or so, but then it comes back on for good. I apply the official suggestions, no joy. It’s not the iPhone—I have a spare car charger lying around and verify that the iPhone isn’t on the fritz.

I call the TomTom Support number. They’re closed from Christmas until the New Year. “Try us again later.”

Still, it was a good trip, the Basque know how to live, the roads were clear, and I didn’t get flashed. But…

This got me thinking about the state and future of Navigation. Integrated navigation systems amount to a nice racket, an expensive option on most cars. We don’t have to have one, but we willingly pay $1,000 or more for the integration— no dangling wires, no unseemly windshield or dashboard protuberances to sully our pristine conveyances—and that’s probably enough to push a car sale into the black all by itself. A year or so later, we get a letter in the mail offering software/map updates ranging from $185 (Japanese) to $295 (Wehrmacht staff cars). They must have been watching Microsoft peddling Office updates.

During the Basque trip, I compared the TomTom (and, with flagging enthusiasm, the Pioneer), to Google Maps on my iPhone. You can guess what I saw: The E70 extension that mystified TomTom and Pioneer wasn’t a problem for Google. If you want turn-by-turn navigation with up-to-date maps—and you don’t want to get fleeced—get an Android phone with Google’s application.

Maintaining maps is a Sisyphean task. You need a lot of money, a lot of data, and a lot of people. How many companies can compete with Google on these three fronts?

Once upon a time, Nokia bought a mapping company called Navteq and TomTom bought TeleAtlas. Neither company has Google’s money or data or culture, and, above all, its goals. Google hires a battalion of contractors to minutely edit map legends and their translations. We’ve seen their odd-looking mapping vehicles that carry high-precision cameras, GPS, and the controversial but ultimately helpful WiFi SSID mapping units. (WiFi triangulation helps when a GPS signal isn’t available.)

We know Google’s strategy: They want to be everything to everyone, everywhere, all the time. This is the means to their advertising money pump (a.k.a. their business model). Google’s definition of “openness” is they want us to be always open to their stream of ads. Google Maps, a splendid product, full of clever nuances and constantly improved, is a strong component of that overall strategy.

What does this mean for the future of navigation devices?

Carmakers will continue to get an integration premium. Some, like BMW, already “sell” Google Maps. If you’re connected to the Google Cloud, the update problem disappears…the only button you have to press is “Refresh”. It’ll be interesting to see what Apple, Nokia, RIM, and Microsoft will do to up this ante.

One last anecdote.

On the way back to the airport, we’re in luck. We’re in the audience of a geeky cab driver. In addition to the cab company terminal, he has an iPhone, a TomTom, and a Coyote device. We exchange stories. He complains about the TomTom update process. Once a month, he has to connect it to his computer, a chancy, clunky experience. The Coyote unit is more sophisticated, it combines a GPS locator and a 3G link to the Cloud. (Apparently, there is some new combination between TomTom and Coyote. And I realize, too late, there is a Coyote iPhone app…) Pay a monthly fee and you get speed trap updates in real time. But the kicker is this: These updates are crowdsourced. Drivers notify the Coyote Systems of new traps and the updates spread instantly.

Cloud + Crowd = might.

We happen upon an accident. The driver punches a button on his cab’s terminal, sending time and location to the company’s servers and, as a side-effect, to other drivers.

Soon to be a Google Maps service?