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Joe Nocera Trolls Apple

NYT columnist and Steve Jobs antagonist Joe Nocera builds a flimsy case for Apple’s decline upon a tenuous foundation in today’s paper. A few points worth responding to:

Tech Graveyard
Tech Graveyard

NYT columnist and Steve Jobs antagonist Joe Nocera builds a flimsy case for Apple’s decline upon a tenuous foundation in today’s paper. A few points worth responding to:

If Steve Jobs were still alive, would the new map application on the iPhone 5 be such an unmitigated disaster? Interesting question, isn’t it?

(click here to continue reading Has Apple Peaked? – NYTimes.com.)

No, not really. Are you asserting that everything Apple ever released while Steve Jobs was alive was perfect? As a Mac user from before Steve Jobs came back to Apple, I’ve followed the company pretty closely, and there were plenty of crappy applications, plenty of dud hardwares, plenty of missteps during the fifteen years of Jobs running Apple. Ping? The PowerMac G4 Cube? The so-called antenna problem with the iPhone 4? Final Cut Pro X? The hockey puck mouse? Some iterations of Mobile Me? You get the idea: Steve Jobs and Apple have failed plenty of times, releasing unpolished, unfinished or unsuccessful products. But for Joe Nocera, the alleged failure of Apple Maps 1.0 means Apple is about to crumble into pieces. Next week, Nocera is going to call for Apple to spin off their iOS division, and license the software to Nokia. 

In rolling out a new operating system for the iPhone 5, Apple replaced Google’s map application — the mapping gold standard — with its own, vastly inferior, application, which has infuriated its customers. With maps now such a critical feature of smartphones, it seems to be an inexplicable mistake.

And you can see it in the decision to replace Google’s map application. Once an ally, Google is now a rival, and the thought of allowing Google to promote its maps on Apple’s platform had become anathema. More to the point, Apple wants to force its customers to use its own products, even when they are not as good as those from rivals. Once companies start acting that way, they become vulnerable to newer, nimbler competitors that are trying to create something new, instead of milking the old. Just ask BlackBerry, which once reigned supreme in the smartphone market but is now roadkill for Apple and Samsung.

That’s one way of looking at it. But all we really know is that the license agreement between Apple and Google has ended. Perhaps Google didn’t want to license their maps to Apple anymore? Or Google raised the licensing fee to astronomical levels? After all, Google’s Android is a direct competitor to Apple’s iOS. Apple has always been more comfortable making their own versions of software so that companies don’t have leverage over Apple’s business decisions. Remember in the late ‘90s when Microsoft and Adobe almost stopped developing Microsoft Office and Photoshop for the Mac? I’d be leery of depending upon Google as well, Google has become much more cutthroat in recent years. 

Dreaming of Phone Booths for a modern Superman
Dreaming of Phone Booths for a modern Superman

And maybe that’s all it is — a mistake, soon to be fixed. But it is just as likely to turn out to be the canary in the coal mine. Though Apple will remain a highly profitable company for years to come, I would be surprised if it ever gives us another product as transformative as the iPhone or the iPad.

Part of the reason is obvious: Jobs isn’t there anymore. It is rare that a company is so completely an extension of one man’s brain as Apple was an extension of Jobs. While he was alive, that was a strength; now it’s a weakness. Apple’s current executive team is no doubt trying to maintain the same demanding, innovative culture, but it’s just not the same without the man himself looking over everybody’s shoulder. If the map glitch tells us anything, it is that.

But there is also a less obvious — yet possibly more important — reason that Apple’s best days may soon be behind it. When Jobs returned to the company in 1997, after 12 years in exile, Apple was in deep trouble. It could afford to take big risks and, indeed, to search for a new business model, because it had nothing to lose.

Fifteen years later, Apple has a hugely profitable business model to defend — and a lot to lose. Companies change when that happens. “The business model becomes a gilded cage, and management won’t do anything to challenge it, while doing everything they can to protect it,” says Larry Keeley, an innovation strategist at Doblin, a consulting firm.

Again, Nocera is trolling here. He claims to be able to see into the future, and tells us plebes that Apple will never make an innovative product again, ever! Really! And the reason that Apple is going to sour is that a first iteration of an app they released on Wednesday doesn’t please everyone. Maybe Mr. Nocera ought to switch to decaf and lay off the bath salts?

For the record, Maps seems to be ok for me, but I rarely used the Street View in Google Maps, plus Chicago is pretty well mapped. If I lived somewhere else, maybe I’d be displeased as well. But version 1 of Google Maps wasn’t so great either, and that didn’t mean that Google was about to descend into RIM/BlackBerry territory. No, instead, there were steady improvements made, and now Google Maps is fairly useful, and accurate. I still use it on my phone, by the way. In fact, I have an icon on my home screen that allows me to load it whenever I need it, or am concerned that Apple’s Map app might be wrong.

I would bet Joe Nocera $500 that Apple is going to improve its iOS Map app rapidly, and by version 3, this won’t be an issue for the majority of users. For all the negative press, I haven’t read of many people returning their iPhone because the Map app is so horrible.


A less “trolly” response from Mike Dobson:

I have spent several hours poring over the news for examples of the types of failures and find nothing unexpected in the results. Apple does not have a core competency in mapping and has not yet assembled the sizable, capable team that they will eventually need if they are determined to produce their own mapping/navigation/local search application.

Perhaps the most egregious error is that Apple’s team relied on quality control by algorithm and not a process partially vetted by informed human analysis. You cannot read about the errors in Apple Maps without realizing that these maps were being visually examined and used for the first time by Apple’s customers and not by Apple’s QC teams. If Apple thought that the results were going to be any different than they are, I would be surprised. Of course, hubris is a powerful emotion.

If you go back over this blog and follow my recounting of the history of Google’s attempts at developing a quality mapping service, you will notice that they initially tried to automate the entire process and failed miserably, as has Apple. Google learned that you cannot take the human out of the equation. While the mathematics of mapping appear relatively straight forward, I can assure you that if you take the informed human observer who possesses local and cartographic knowledge out of the equation that you will produce exactly what Apple has produced – A failed system.

The issue plaguing Apple Maps is not mathematics or algorithms, it is data quality and there can be little doubt about the types of errors that are plaguing the system. What is happening to Apple is that their users are measuring data quality. Users look for familiar places they know on maps and use these as methods of orienting themselves, as well as for testing the goodness of maps. They compare maps with reality to determine their location. They query local businesses to provide local services. When these actions fail, the map has failed and this is the source of Apple’s most significant problems. Apple’s maps are incomplete, illogical, positionally erroneous, out of date, and suffer from thematic inaccuracies.

(click here to continue reading Exploring Local » Blog Archive » Google Maps announces a 400 year advantage over Apple Maps.)

My point remains: the Apple Map app may be bad, will probably get somewhat better in the future, and this still doesn’t mean that Apple is about to turn into Sears & Roebuck, and be discarded in the tech graveyard.

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