Opinion: The Importance of Maps

Apple’s had a fantastic week, launching two major new products and having both roll out smoothly and met with phenomenal success. There is a detractor, though – a stain on the blanket of Apple’s success. That stain has been well publicized (to the point that Samsung is already making and sending ads about it). This is, of course, Apple Maps.

Right now, they are a disappointment. But, if Apple is able to craft them in to something that is competitive with Google’s offerings, it could signify a great deal about everything from Apple’s ability to deploy online services, and even Apple’s ability to move in to a completely new market post-Jobs.

Let’s get the obvious out of the way: The maps will improve. Maps can only get so much better in captivity: for various features to be added, and even the overall accuracy of the maps to improve, users have to use them. Apple Maps will improve, just as Google Maps continuously do (there’s a reason why Google’s offering is still in beta, even after literally  half a decade of being available to the public). Secondly, Apple Maps aren’t “useless” – in many cases, they’re pretty great. Are they as great as Google Maps? Well, maybe, though the times that they are seem to be few and far between. One thing is for certain, though: on iOS, Apple Maps is far more extensible than the old Maps app would have ever been as long as Google held the reins.

But, as mentioned earlier, they are disappointing. The directions are generally accurate, though I have heard and seem some instances that argue the contrary, and the maps are definitely more visually appealing – that’s a typical Apple move, but it’s a legitimate point against Google. However, the product feels incomplete, with various features missing, and even certain areas not being fully mapped-out, or having slightly inaccurate directions.

That has to be fixed – and soon. In my mind, if Apple is able to fix these high-profile issues, and build Apple Maps in to a true competitor against Google, Nokia, and Microsoft’s offerings, then Apple will have finally reached the class of a company that can build off the internet. Apple has iCloud (and before that the disaster known as MobileMe, which replaced .Mac). However, this service has had internal issues: Maps can’t have these issues. Apple Maps is something that can’t go down. Not only can’t it go down, it has to continuously get better. It has to be updated, maintained, improved – all independent of iOS’ updating cycle. Everything has to be done on the back end, and there is very little room for error: having half a billion devices without a mapping application, even if it’s just for an hour, would be a huge stain on Apple’s badge of quality. If it goes down, it’s all on Apple – it will take a company that is able to go toe-to-toe with Google, the internet juggernaut, to keep this service reliable, and to reliably improve it.

Apple has never done Maps. Online mapping services are difficult: there’s a reason why startups aren’t clambering over each other to provide the new “hipster” maps that only highlight great coffee places and record shops. They require massive monetary investments, they require time to develop the back end, and (most importantly) they require the patience and perseverance to keep working, to keep molding the product in to the best that it can be. Apple has never done Maps – this is a whole new field of competition for them, and (for the first time since the iPhone), they aren’t the one inventing the product. The product, online maps, has existed for years and years, and the dominant power – Google – is doing very well. As Dan Frommer of SplatF wrote, Apple maps is now Apple’s most exciting product. This is a Jobsian transition, one that could highlight the errors in management and corporate structure of Apple as a whole, or one that could be Tim Cook’s highest honor: if he can facilitate the creation of an online service that is used by millions of people every second without ever going down, all the while making it better and better every day, he will have done what Jobs couldn’t.

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