Does the Maps screwup show a bigger problem?

So iOS 6 is out and everyone is having a pretty good laugh at Apples expense.  Partly because the usual cycle involving a Golden Boy has left the point where they can do no wrong and heading towards where they can do no right.  Partly because the Maps app is suffering the sort of derision that effectively kills something at birth.

To set the scene, previous versions of iOS have had Map and YouTube functionality provided by Google.  This has now stopped as the licence has run out.  Apple has decided to supply its own mapping software using its own map information.  This information is flaky at best, just plain wrong at worst.

Google Maps has been going for nearly a decade.  Google have sunk billions into it, with Street View, Google Earth and all that.  The idea that Apple could simply replace it with their own version and users would be happy is insanity.

It doesn’t come down to money either.  Apple and Google have large amounts of money.  Money soothes all ills in business, and the licence could have been renewed.

Where the problem lies is attitude.  The tech industry likes openness.  It loves interconnectability, right up until the point where a technology has taken root and then, what tech companies love most of all, is a monopoly.  It doesn’t matter how the monopoly is configured, from Apples closed iOS garden to Googles’ wide open space, every inch of which is covered by CCTV.  But once they have got there, then the monopoly must be maintained.

This is why one of the major technology battlegrounds currently is the courts.  Everybody is suing everybody.  Apple is suing Google, Google is suing Apple, the phone manufacturers are suing each other, the phone OS makers are suing each other.  Companies win some, lose some in an attempt to protect their monopolies.  Apple don’t want to give Google more power over users – money, yes if they have to, but control… no.  Monopolists crave control.  Once you have control, the money flows automatically.

Unfortunately, all the monopolists and proto-monopolists are missing a valuable point.

Users don’t give a damn.

The tech world is, certainly compared to a decade ago, massively open and interoperable.  I am a SharePoint guy for a living, yet at home I work on an iMac and develop SharePoint stuff using a Parallels VM.  I use Facebook and Twitter from Chrome on my Mac, IE on the VM and Tweetdeck on my Android phone.  I love Nokias in the late 90s and early 2000, then I loved Android from 1.5 onwards but now I’m looking at shifting to iPhone when my contract ends in about 6 months.  I know iPhone people who are looking at going the other way.  We’ll still be able to browse the web, send email, send tweets, update our statuses.  The browser, OS and phone used to do this doesn’t matter to a user.  Hell, I use Facebook using the mobile browser when on 3G as the app is bloody awful when not on a wi-fi connection.

So while I may be using a monopoly in one aspect of my online life, it isn’t controlling any of the others.  In fact, I’m using it because it inter-operates with everything else.

I’ve seen it argued that some monopolies are good – and to an extent, I agree.  Certainly when it comes to an OS, having a strict baseline to work from can be very beneficial (a program written for Windows will always work on Windows, for instance).

But at some point, monopolies die.

IBM were the monopolists in the 1980s.  Microsoft in the 90s.  Internet Explorer had 90% of the desktop browsers, now it is down nearer 50% (ironically, as the program got better, its market share has gone down.)  At various points over the past 20 years, it seemed like RealPlayer, Netscape, MySpace and Flash ruled the world.

Sometimes they get outmanoeuvred.  Nokia were the kings of the jungle in 2006, and then Steve Jobs walked onto a stage, introduced an iPhone and made an entire industry almost irrelevant in just 45 minutes.  Sometimes they shoot themselves in the foot.  Twitter is currently overhauling its API infrastructure, locking out the very developers that produced the hundreds of clients for smartphones that fed the site.  (Would it have taken off so fast if there was just one client and no open API?  Ask Google+.)

But usually monopolies die because they place the company above the users.  Apple took over the personal computing world in a decade because of its relentless focus on products that users not only wanted, but needed, at a time when the competition was focused on locking users in.

Forget the “disappointment” of the iPhone 5, seismic shifts come along very rarely and it is still the leader others follow.  Forget the Cult of Jobs and Apple becoming a “normal” company in his untimely absence.  (It always was. Billion dollar companies are not individuals.  There is no “Cult of Michael O’Leary”, is there?). The Maps debacle is an indicator that Apple is beginning to lose that laser-like focus.

What Apple should have done was sucked it up and paid Google the cash.  It can’t seriously hope to catch up to Google Maps in the next half decade, assuming that it does recover from the PR debacle that might strangle Maps at birth.  I’m not even sure Apple should spend time sending cars around every street in the world. What, ultimately, is in it for them? Google Maps will probably be replaced in a decade (probably by something that only exists right now in somebody’s head) and trying to start the process is like taking on Muhammad Ali in his prime instead of when he was on the downhill slope.  It is easier to deliver a final killing blow to a weakened opponent that to swing the first punch against a strong one.

Of course, I’m not going pronounce the death of Apple.  (I’m merely going to leave that phrase in there for the search engines.)  But it does seem they are doing the thing that has led to the demise of many before them.  Give someone something new (e.g Siri) and they will forgive mistakes along the way.  Replace something very good with something that offers none of the benefits (when it even works) and introduces a lot of new problems is a big mistake to recover from.  I have no doubt the tech world will forget about it in a few months time and iOS will continue to lead the way but the seeds of doubt are now planted.  And that is a tricky weed to get rid of.

Users don’t have brand loyalty, no matter how many fanbois you think you have.  (In fact, the more uncritical followers you have, the faster your eventual demise.)  Users don’t mind monopolies, but they do find ways to break out of them when they need to.  Users aren’t stupid, but they are dumb – keep giving them the good stuff and you have them forever.  But give them the chance to look elsewhere and they will be off after the next shiny thing put in their vision.

One thought on “Does the Maps screwup show a bigger problem?”

  1. Hm. Overall, have to agree. However, do have to correct one thing. Users are not dumb. However, they ARE lazy! And it is that inertia that companies sometimes get lazy (!) Abs rely on for repeat custom

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