Apple seems to have gotten a little bit lost

Story highlights

  • Apple CEO Tim Cook had to apologize for new Maps app on iPhone 5 and iOS 6
  • Nilay Patel: In its competition with Google, Apple seems to have gotten a bit lost
  • He says it's more than a little strange for Apple to tell customers to try other products
  • Patel: No company wants to be praised for its apologies; Apple needs to get it right
Apple CEO Tim Cook had to apologize for the buggy new Maps app in the iPhone 5 and iOS 6 on Friday, saying that his company "fell short" of making a "world-class product." It was a gracious and humble admission of a major mistake -- a sign that Apple takes its customers seriously and conducts itself with integrity.
"We are extremely sorry for the frustration this has caused," Cook said in a letter posted on the company's website. "We are doing everything we can to make Maps better." That relentless focus on treating customers right is why Apple has been the undisputed leader of the technology business for the past decade. But while the apology is commendable, the maps mistake was entirely Apple's fault.
Previous versions of the iPhone and iOS used Google Maps, which are the industry standard. No one was complaining about Google Maps. Sure, they're not perfect, but we're all used to their errors and gaps. But Apple broke its contract to use Google Maps a year earlier than expected because of corporate politics. Google is a competitor, and Apple wanted to break ties and control its own maps. That's an extra year in which Apple could have improved its own maps — an extra year which was apparently sorely needed.
The timing of the move surprised even Google, which is scrambling to build its own maps app for the iPhone and iPad. It reportedly won't be ready until the end of the year. Until then, Apple is stuck telling unhappy customers that they can visit Google Maps in the iPhone's Web browser or download other map apps like MapQuest or Bing. Needless to say, it's more than a little strange for Apple to suggest customers to try a Microsoft product.
Nilay Patel
To be fair, Apple's new maps add important features Google wasn't willing to share. The iPhone 5 has built-in, turn-by-turn directions, and the maps are faster and prettier. But for most people, the drawbacks far outweigh the benefits.
What good is voice navigation if it gets you lost? Who cares if the 3-D map is prettier when it thinks the Brooklyn Bridge has been demolished and the Statue of Liberty destroyed? These aren't questions anyone is used to asking about Apple products, because Apple doesn't usually ship broken products. Apple's failures are magnified by the company's track record of perfectionism — perfectionism that comes from putting customers first.
It's understandable why Apple felt it needed to switch away from Google. Being dependent on a competitor isn't great for any company. Apple likes to control its own destiny. Cook has said the company needs to "own and control the primary technologies behind the products that we make."
Maps are without question a critical feature for smartphones and tablets, and it makes sense for Apple to build its own. But it doesn't make sense to switch away from Google before Apple's own product is ready, and it's doubtful iPhone 5 sales would have been even slightly affected because the Google Maps app on Android is slightly better. Now it's fair to wonder if potential upgraders and switchers aren't holding back because they don't want to be forced into using inferior maps.
Apple deserves praise for being forthright and direct in its apology, but no company wants to be praised for its apologies. It's more important for Apple to understand its mistake and try to prevent it from happening again. Apple is the most valuable company in the world because it has always fought battles for the consumer, not for the company. But in its race to win a corporate victory over Google, Apple seems to have gotten a little bit lost.
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