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The biggest problem with Apple Maps? Our overreaction

apple maps fallout header googleApple is taking a lot of heat over the release of the iPhone 5 and its corresponding operating system, iOS 6. The screen is too small. The sales, too few. It lacks NFC. The complaints go on and on.

Outcry is strongest over the new Apple Maps application, which replaces Google Maps. While it has its flaws, the outsized reaction to Apple Maps comes more from media hype and unrealistically high expectations than any severe problem. Like the uproar over “Antenna Gate” in 2010, we’ll soon forget all about it.

Why we’re reacting

I am not saying that a reaction wasn’t warranted. As a longtime iPhone user, maps always has been one of my most-used and most-enjoyed features. Whether looking for a coffee shop downtown or planning a trip cross country, ubiquitous mapping has fundamentally improved my life. It’s like having an extra sense, and I would be lost — literally — without it. I’m sure many iPhone users agree.

The redesign of an app so important to so many would have drawn attention even if it brought improvements to the experience. The widespread use of Maps is one reason there have been so many complaints about the application. We are never so vocal as when we are dissatisfied, and many, many people are dissatisfied right now.

We’re used to seeing high-quality experiences from Apple. There is dramatic tension in the idea that Apple may have made a miscue.

ios 6 accurateThat dramatic tension is also the reason that news coverage of the Maps app has been so thorough. As Donald Murray wrote in Writing For Your Readers: Notes on the Writers Craft from The Boston Globe:

The experienced writer sees the world through the lens of language, and that lens captures the tension between forces in the world that will produce a story.

This tension may make for a good story, but it’s precisely the reason that we are all overreacting.

Why we’re overreacting

Described in these pages as “mediocre to bad” and by The Guardian as Apple’s “first significant failure in years,” Apple must be feeling the heat from this wrong turn. A spokesperson’s recent claim that Apple is “just getting started” and Tim Cook’s recent apology indicate that Apple is sensitive to these complaints.

With some of the most skilled design and engineering talent in the world, Apple has the capacity to fix Maps. Critically, Apple should also have the motivation to fix Maps — something it lacked with the Podcasts app, which remains garbage nearly two months after I first complained about it.

Reactions to Maps have been so severe that Apple must turn more of its attention to fixing Maps, and spokespeople claim it is. Reports that Apple is recruiting Google Maps contractors also support this view. If Apple is motivated to fix Maps, improvements should occur more rapidly than we’ve seen for Podcasts.

ios 6 las vegas appleThe core feature set for map applications is fairly consistent. All Apple must do is ape its competitors offerings and add in Apple’s traditional fit and finish – complaints will cease. This will require Apple to make large improvements in the geographic data that Maps is based on, but there are indications that this is already happening. It will be no small feat to develop a mapping database on par with Google’s, but Apple is one of the most valuable companies in history (at least when it comes to market cap). I wouldn’t put anything beyond its reach.

The long game

Reactions to Apple’s Maps remind me of responses to Microsoft’s Surface and Twitter’s tighter API restrictions earlier this year. There is an important similarity in all of these stories: They are all aggressive plays by companies in long-term markets.

We are only now in year three of tablet computer use, and it’s clear already that tablets will be a (or even the) dominant computing form factor of the next five to ten years. Microsoft saw the writing on the wall, and is now working to bring its own tablets to market. Microsoft makes enough money with Windows and Office to invest hundreds of millions of dollars into Surface and improve it iteratively over the next several years. These initial tablets are the first step on that path. With the first Surface tablets, it’s less important that they be good, and more important that they simply be, so that they can be better after further development.

Twitter is also in it for the long haul, and wants to be a dominant media company for years to come. Though they took a lot of flack from developers and pundits over tighter API rules announced in August, these changes ultimately give Twitter more control over the end user experience for their product. Further, as Molly McHugh wrote for Digital Trends:

There are lots of pundits saying that only the geekiest of Twitter users will be upset by these changes; the tech scene watchers for who Twitter has become a pulse. But I think those analysts are underestimating the social impact Twitter has started to have.

This is the fifth year of popular use of Twitter. Though this seems to be a bad short-term move, if Twitter is still popular in five or ten years, this will only have been a minor bump in the road.

Maps is also an important long-term play for Apple. Apple does not want to be dependent on any other technology company — least of all Google, with which Cupertino has an ever-warming cold war. Though Apple Maps is bad right now, it frees Apple from dependence on Google maps. This is painful for iPhone users, but it’s necessary pain. It could also be temporary pain. If Apple Maps is significantly improved six months from now, this glitchy release will only be a humorous memory.

Remember Antenna-Gate?

Pundits and tech media railed against Apple in similar style during the “Antenna Gate” fiasco following the launch of the iPhone 4. But how much does the famous “iPhone 4 Death Grip” matter today? Hardly. It doesn’t even matter to me, and I actually own an iPhone 4 that will drop calls if I hold it wrong without a case. You know what? I love my iPhone 4.

Maps seems to be the new Antenna Gate, all the way down to drawing a reaction from Apple’s CEO. The most recent development in this story, occurring just before my deadline, was Cook’s release of a statement that Apple is “extremely sorry for the frustration” that Maps has caused. This is the clearest indicator so far that Apple is aware of the Maps problem and moving to deal with it. Cook closed his note with the following:

Everything we do at Apple is aimed at making our products the best in the world. We know that you expect that from us, and we will keep working non-stop until Maps lives up to the same incredibly high standard.

Now that Cook is on the case, I am even more confident Maps will be addressed quickly.

However, if Maps isn’t updated, and is instead neglected like Apple’s awful Podcasts app? Well, then I’ll really be worried.