In Defense of Maps

First off, let me just say, people need to chill the fuck out and quit all the bitching. Yes, I grasp the irony of bitching about people bitching. But the fact is that, before the iPhone all cell phones were total pieces of shit, and no one ever complained about it. Now Apple releases a new and better iPhone every year and all people do is complain about it. It reminds me of Louis CK's brilliant Everything's Amazing and No One's Happy bit.

Second, and along similar lines, I want to take a moment to respond to a ridiculous attempt at tech punditry by the New York Times' Joe Nocera. Let me be clear from the outset: I am not a tech pundit. I make no claim to be able to write competently about business, tech or otherwise. When all's said and done, I'm a technician. But I've been following Apple and using and supporting their products for over a decade now. And I have a brain and a perspective, and these things lead me to call bullshit on Nocera's article.

Nocera is basically arguing that, now that Apple is big and Steve Jobs is gone, the company will never be innovative again. And his Exhibit A is the iPhone 5 and the new Maps application. Let's go through his article bit by bit and see where things fall apart.

Nocera starts off by invoking the Ghost of Steve Jobs:

As Apple’s chief executive, Jobs was a perfectionist. He had no tolerance for corner-cutting or mediocre products.

This is certainly true. But Jobs also knew when to ship. And he knew that shipping great products was as important as making them. And Jobs understood that 1.0 releases would be feature incomplete and imperfect. And that that was okay. Take any new Apple release from the last decade — like, I don't know, the first iPhone — and you'll see what I mean. I'd argue that Maps is not mediocre, it's just new.

Nocera then writes:

The three devices that made Apple the most valuable company in America — the iPod, the iPhone and the iPad — were all genuine innovations that forced every other technology company to play catch-up.

This is certainly true. But suggesting that this level of innovation is possible on a yearly basis is folly. These are once-in-a-decade releases. Most innovation comes not in leaps and bounds, but rather in baby steps. Take Mac OS X, the iPod or even iOS as examples of consistent, year over year evolutions. This is how it works.

Nocera complains a bit more about Apple's recent lack of innovation, and then goes on to criticize the new Maps application:

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.

But what Nocera fails to grasp is that it's not a mistake at all. Maps is an example of the very innovation that Nocera claims Apple now fails to attempt. Let's face it, the old Maps app hadn't been significantly updated since iOS 1. And with relations between Apple and Google strained, getting Google to improve the product was, I'd guess, an increasingly daunting task. Apple's belief was that they could do it themselves and do it better. The new Maps is the first iteration of that gamble.

Nocera then goes on to write about how this never would have happened without Jobs, and then:

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 [Jobs] looking over everybody’s shoulder. If the map glitch tells us anything, it is that.

No, the Maps "glitch" is exactly the kind of innovative nudge Jobs would've done. It is, in fact, precisely how Apple has innovated over the past decade: by destroying the old and rebuilding it. The current team, to my eye, seems to be behaving perfectly in the Jobsian style, even if they may not be able to sell it as well.

Next, Nocera begins to contradict his very own argument:

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.

So wait, you're saying that Apple has just replaced the "mapping gold standard" on its flagship products with what it believes will one day be a better solution, thus pissing off lots of people, taking huge amounts of criticism and possibly hurting the brand, at least in the short run, but that they're no longer willing to take big risks? Whatever their motivation, and despite what you may think of the app, replacing Maps with their own, non-Google version is a hugely ballsy move and shows that that's just not true.

Nocera then goes on to make the inevitable Microsoft comparison, followed by some erroneous assumptions:

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.

This is just wrong. From what I understand, Apple's license with Google had simply expired and they needed to decide if they would extend that license or go a new way. Apple has allowed a Google-branded YouTube application onto iOS, as well as Google's Chrome browser. And it's my understanding that a Google-branded mapping solution is in the works. If it's not, you can only blame Google for this. If it is, I have little doubt that it will soon be available in the App Store along with all the other Google products. This isn't Apple being anti-competitive, it's Apple being competitive. Apple thinks they can win here, not by forcing people to use its own products, but rather by making better ones.

Whether Maps is a good app or not is arguable. It has features not found in Google's maps app, but lacks some of that app's functionality as well. I've used it and I think it's good for a version 1 product. I certainly think the turn-by-turn navigation is very well implemented. And for most daily uses I think I'll be able to get by just as well with this new Maps, though, being in New York City, I will dearly miss street view in certain instances. Innovation always incurs tradeoffs, though. We technicians are well aware of this.

But Maps is not an indication of Apple being in decline or failing to innovate. If anything, it's just the opposite. This seems to be the same old Apple, making year-over-year improvements and taking the occasional risk that a change that pisses people off today may just be the thing everyone wants in a year or two. They're not always right about this, but they keep trying, and Maps and the iPhone 5 are the proof — not the refutation — of this.


One other thing has occurred to me while reading more about Apple's difficulties with the Maps launch. I keep reading that Google has had turn-by-turn directions in the Android version of its Maps app for some time now. But we've never seen this feature in iOS. This seems a strong indication to me that Google was not in any huge hurry to update its iOS Maps offering. Turn-by-turn is a feature — admittedly, perhaps the only one right now — where the new Apple Maps is actually better than the Google-made Maps. And its an important feature to a very large chunk of potential iPhone buyers. But more importantly, the addition of turn-by-turn is evidence that Apple wanted to make the Maps product better but was not getting any help from Google.

The fact is, none of us — not Joe Nocera, and certainly not me — knows what really went on behind the scenes to make this Maps deal go down. It's clearly been in the works for some time and there have likely been numerous factors at work. But I do believe that at least part of the decision was based on Apple making a better product for its customers.