Apple Finally Acquires the Mapping Knowledge It Urgently Needs

By Wayne Rash  |  Posted 2013-07-21

Apple Finally Acquires the Mapping Knowledge It Urgently Needs

Very few events illustrate Apple’s outlook on the world more clearly than the failure of its Apple Maps, which enraged iPhone and iPad users around the world with the release of iOS 6.

Under Steve Jobs, Apple’s view of the world was that the company defined cool and excellence. As Jobs indicated time after time, if a product wasn’t from Apple, then it didn’t have either.

It was this extreme level of hubris that helped convince managers at Apple that the company could summarily dispose of Google, which had been providing mapping services for Apple, and simply strike out on its own. Apple did this, of course, because the company was outraged that Google had developed Android and, worse, Android was selling well. Jobs, in his rage, declared that he could wage “thermonuclear war” on Google.

Apparently Apple was using its own mapping software when it went looking for Google, because all it accomplished was to find its own foot before it promptly shot off a couple of toes. As I pointed out about a year ago, Apple Maps was good for a few laughs, but not for actual navigation. Since then, Apple has updated the mapping app with some fixes, such as replacing the Washington Monument to its rightful location, but most of the problems remain unfixed.

Fortunately for Apple’s customers, Steve Jobs was no longer with us, and the new CEO, Tim Cook, not only realized there was a problem, but he admitted it to Apple’s customers, and took steps to rectify it as quickly as possible by, among other actions, recommending that Apple users go back to Google, or even to Microsoft Bing.

Had Apple realized its limitations at the beginning of the process, it might have decided to stay with Google, which at least had a clue, or taken more time to deliver its own mapping app that actually worked properly. But in those days Apple’s arrogance was at its height, and Jobs would have never allowed such a show of weakness.

Fortunately, Apple has finally figured out that mapping is really hard, and it has bought the Canadian mapping firm Locationary for its necessary expertise. In an interview, Locationary CEO Grant Ritchie pointed out specifically what Apple needed to do to fix its mapping product. Clearly, Apple has decided to take Ritchie at his word.

Maybe in another year or so, Apple will finally fix its own mapping app so that it’s useful enough that people can count on it to get them to the airport. Or to the Washington Monument.

Apple Finally Acquires the Mapping Knowledge It Urgently Needs

But Apple didn’t need to do this and it didn’t need to keep a good map application out of the hands of users. For example, Apple could have simply stayed with Google’s mapping which it already knew worked because that’s what Apple had been using for the first versions of iOS.

Or, if Apple had wanted good mapping capabilities, it could have gone with the experts and signed up to use Navteq’s maps. Navteq is the provider of maps for aircraft and marine navigation, as well as most of the dedicated GPS products used by consumers.

But there’s a problem. Navteq is owned by another rival, Nokia. There’s no chance that Apple could admit when its mapping app was being planned that a company that it was trying to beat in the marketplace might know more about something than Apple, the coolest of them all.

So as a result, Apple failed. What followed made for a lot of fun location browsing as the Internet filled with the results of Apple’s mistakes, some funny and some not so funny. Fortunately for Apple, its stockholders and its customers, Apple’s new CEO scores a lot lower on the hubris meter. Rather than posturing, Cook went about fixing.

Not surprisingly, it wasn’t all that long before Cook and others realized that figuring out mapping on their own was much more difficult than they’d realized. This time they went looking and found a small startup that actually knows maps. The marriage with Locationary was consummated. Financial terms of the deal haven’t been disclosed.

There are many who bemoan the untimely passing of Steve Jobs. But in the long run it’s probably the best thing that could happen to Apple, and the mapping debacle along with the efforts to fix it is only one illustration. The difference is that now Apple is being run by grown-ups, and it’s no longer the fiefdom of a single person who rages about nuclear war and tries to use any tool at hand–legal or not–to eliminate rivals.

Cook may not be the charismatic leader that Jobs was, but even Apple needs to reach the point where it’s being run like a company rather than a cult. What’s perhaps less obvious by those who loved Apple as a cult is that the company will weather the storms of globalization much better under Cook’s guidance.

While there are some who will point to Apple’s shrinking market share and point to Cook, they should be pointing to the fact that Apple is still a major player, and thanking Cook. Now, at least, there is a much better chance that Apple users will get the mapping software Apple should have delivered many months ago.

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