Editorial Apple's smart Maps maneuver

It might seem as if Apple chose its iOS 6 release last week to practice the biblical directive to love one's enemy. For, by ejecting Google Maps from updated iPads and iPhones, Apple hath caused glorious comparisons to shine upon its foe. If most people were unaware of comparative feature sets and quality aspects that distinguish Google Maps from Apple Maps, every tech-loving person on God's earth is an expert now.

The media love a bloodbath, and Joe Nocera led the rhetorical pack by calling Apple Maps an "unmitigated disaster" in a NY Times piece. He wondered whether such calamity would have ensued if Steve Jobs (who called the 1998 "hockey puck" mouse the world's best pointing device) were guiding the company's product evolution. Mr. Nocera argues the Maps replacement as an indicator that Apple has peaked.

I argue that replacing Google Maps with Apple Maps was shrewd, inevitable and an indicator that Apple understands the true battle it wages.

But first let's examine the damage. It is gleeful fun to contemplate roads plunging into the ocean and marvel over mainland cities miraculously relocated to islands. Variously sourced slices of satellite imagery carve local regions into wildly different seasonal snapshots. Roads and bridges seem to melt in the sun in wavering and apocalyptic hallucinations. Anyone flying into Toronto will cancel the reservation if they see the madly surrealist airport map before boarding.

Apple was scorched over the weekend. "Atrocious" (Slate). Motorola's riotous documentations via the #iLost hashtag. An Irish minister asked Apple to remove the airport icon from a farm called Airfield House, apparently fearing that misguided pilots would put down their jets on livestock. The CEO of one of Apple's mapping partners (Waze) distanced himself from the fiasco by heaping scorn on another partner (TomTom).

Well, not to go on about it. The product obviously is not fully baked and was rushed to market. Apple execs had to expect some extent of fallout when they green-lit the app change, but perhaps they underestimated the noise. The usability difference between Google and Apple in their Maps products goes further and deeper than location errors and missing detail. As surveyed by Drew Olanoff, Google's eight years of R&D work and relentless dev cycles has created a possibly insurmountable operational fluency in building a rich interactive atlas.

Apple has a legacy of comfort when playing catch-up -- in some ways. The first iPod was released in 2001, late to the category and shockingly lacking features considered standard in existing MP3 players. (I was shocked, anyway.) But the simple and intuitive machine design was what consumers bought into, along with the demystifying music store model which fueled the player. A clunky iTunes client and hostile DRM had little dampening effect on a market craving simplicity and ease of use.

Editorial Apple's smart Maps maneuver

The maps situation represents a drastic catch-up scenario, and is different in an important way: Apple ripped out a great experience and replaced it with a terrible one. But this is Apple's operating system, and outsourcing a gigantic component is strategically unacceptable. I think Apple knows two things. First, it will repair the worst damage via product updates, too slowly for the hungering punditry, but sufficiently for most users. Second, that the platform itself is not particularly hobbled by one weak app. Discriminating users can grab Google's Maps app when it's available (possibly by December), and there are other alternatives in the meantime.

From the user's perspective, the operating system manifests mainly as common experiential elements that unify many app experiences. Those linkages are more important to the overall device feel than the raft of OEM apps that appear on the default screen that might rarely get used. The main reason I swipe over there is to hit the Settings app and change the screen brightness or switch to Airplane mode. I never touch Messages, choosing to handle messaging with brand-specific apps. Game Center? Be serious -- the device is a gaming platform powered by the App Store. iTunes? I don't buy media à la carte, and you shouldn't either.

From a business perspective, the underlying linkages provided by the key iOS apps (Maps, Safari, Photos, Clock, Contacts) are the ligaments of strategic anatomy. This is where it gets interesting for app developers, and users too, when Apple Maps replaces Google Maps as an embedded feature in app environments that need maps. For example, the iPad Moviefone app locates theaters on Apple Maps, not Google, in an upgraded iOS 6 environment.

There is not much of a usability detriment in Moviefone (which is owned by AOL). Much greater impact is apparent in apps whose main function is to enhance Google Maps in some way. Maps+, for example, was created to augment search and social features in Google Maps. Today, in an iOS 6 device, Maps+ displays Apple Maps. Surprise! The product page was not acknowledging the change as of this writing. StreetViewer, which does what its name promises, is scrambling to deal with the same situation. The product page has promised an update that will bring Google Maps back into the app (as an option) next week.

Editorial Apple's smart Maps maneuver

By grafting its own Maps product into the nervous system of its mobile OS, Apple accomplishes two important things. First, the company's primary mobile competitor is exorcised from the main body. This outcome might be viewed as the remedy to an ailment that never should have occurred. Safari is arguably a worse browser than Chrome, but tech pundits are not shaming Apple for failing to put Google into the operating system as the default browser. Second, Apple positions itself to harvest future local ad revenue. Apple Maps, despite its spatial confusions, has 25 percent more business listings (100 million of them) than Google does.

iOS vs. Android is about competing ecosystems, battled by two ecosystem champs. Apple knows that ecosystem wars are long ones, wherein victories are granted to smart positioning and indefatigable build-up. That is the underlying tactic in Apple's lame-sounding Maps PR bite, "We're just getting started." Apple Maps is embarrassing, but the flush of humiliation can be cooled by swift correctives. It's the positioning that matters in the long run.


Brad Hill is the VP, Audience Development at AOL. He is the former Director and General Manager of Weblogs, Inc.

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