Apple Apologizes for Misstep on Maps

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IPhone users grew more annoyed all week. When they used Apple's new mobile maps, they found nonsensical routes and misplaced landmarks. Bloggers and talk-show hosts mocked the sometimes bizarre errors.

Nine days after the maps' release, the Washington Monument was still on the wrong side of the street. But something else changed.

Timothy D. Cook, Apple's chief executive, released an apologetic letter to customers on Friday, making the remarkable suggestion that they try alternative map services from rivals like Microsoft and Google while Apple improves its own maps. "We are extremely sorry for the frustration this has caused our customers, and we are doing everything we can to make Maps better," Mr. Cook wrote.

The map problems were an embarrassing misstep for a company that strives for perfection in its products and, in the eyes of consumers, often gets pretty close to the mark. Its track record in delivering quality is one reason Apple is now the most valuable public company in the world.

Apple executives have tried to explain their move into maps by saying that the company could no longer afford to rely on Google, its former map provider and growing rival, for such a crucial function. Many analysts and technology executives agree that this was the right move for the long term. But Apple appears to have rushed its map service out prematurely, even though it could have continued to rely on Google until next year.

The outcry shows how map services, which Apple treated as an afterthought when it built the first iPhone, have become critical tools for millions of people. And the company's stumble fits in with its pattern of bungling services that rely heavily on the Internet.

Apple has a reputation for obsessive attention to detail in its hardware and software products, down to the beveled edges of the iPhone 5 and the shade of the icons on its screen. But it has stubbed its toe again and again when it comes to releasing reliable, well-designed Internet services. Its less proud moments include Ping, a social network for music that never took off; MobileMe, an error-plagued service for synchronizing data between devices; and, more recently, Siri, the voice-activated virtual assistant that is often hard of hearing.

The company's weakness in this area could become a bigger problem over time as smartphones become more intimately tied to information and software on the Internet -- a field where Google, which makes the competing Android phone software, has the home-turf advantage.

"I always felt if you had to name an Achilles' heel at Apple, it's Internet services," said Andrew Borovsky, a former Apple product designer who worked on MobileMe and now runs his own design firm in New York. "It's clearly an issue."

An Apple spokeswoman, Natalie Kerris, declined to comment.

Some have sought to pin the blame for the maps debacle on a relaxing of standards under Mr. Cook, who was elevated from the No. 2 position at Apple just over a year ago. He took over shortly before the death of Steven P. Jobs, a notorious perfectionist known to shelve products that did not pass muster.

But numerous interviews with former Apple employees in the wake of the maps controversy made it clear that Mr. Jobs and other executives rarely paid as much attention to Internet services as they did to the devices for which Apple is best known. Nor did they show the kind of consistent foresight in this area that has served the company so well in designing hardware and software.

Including a maps app on the first iPhone was not even part of the company's original plan as the phone's unveiling approached in January 2007. Just weeks before the event, Mr. Jobs ordered a mapping app to show off the capabilities of the touch-screen device.

Two engineers put together a maps app for the presentation in three weeks, said a former Apple engineer who worked on iPhone software, and who declined to be named because he did not want to speak publicly about his previous employer. The company hastily cut a deal with Google to use its map data.

At the time, relying on Google, which had introduced its map service a couple of years earlier, made sense. Apple and Google had generally friendly relations, and Google's chief executive at the time, Eric E. Schmidt, served on Apple's board.

But the relationship chilled in 2008 after Google began building more and more iPhone-like features into Android. That year, Mr. Jobs drove to Google's headquarters and got into a screaming match with Google's founders, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, and the head of its Android development team, Andy Rubin, as he tried to discourage them from copying the iPhone, according to an account of the meeting in Walter Isaacson's biography of Mr. Jobs.

As the iPhone began to catch on with the public, Apple executives were surprised by the popularity of the map function, according to a former Apple executive who did not want to be named so as not to damage his relations with the company. It began to bother executives how much data about the behavior of iPhone users was flowing back to Google, which could see the coordinates of every iPhone user who downloaded a map, the former executive said.

That same year, Apple suffered an embarrassing black eye when it introduced MobileMe, a service that was intended to give iPhone users a convenient way to wirelessly synchronize e-mail, contacts and calendar appointments with computer applications. The summer introduction was so seriously marred by technology problems that Mr. Jobs fired the head of the MobileMe team and replaced him with Eddy Cue, a trusted executive who oversaw the company's iTunes Store.

Former Apple executives said the MobileMe fiasco was a symptom of a lack of appreciation among Apple executives, including Mr. Jobs, of the differences between running an online store like iTunes, where people download music, apps and books, and an online service that is used constantly and must be reliable, like e-mail and maps. Apple's secrecy around new products also makes it hard to adequately stress-test such services. While MobileMe operated well in private tests by Apple employees, it melted down once it became available to the public, these executives said.

"The MobileMe launch clearly demonstrates that we have more to learn about Internet services," Mr. Jobs wrote in an e-mail to Apple employees at the time. "And learn we will."

With that experience behind him and tensions with Google increasing, Mr. Jobs set out to build Apple's own map service in 2009, with the acquisition of a start-up called Placebase. Later, Apple bought two other start-ups focused on 3-D mapping technologies.

Apple executives have said they felt the company needed to get out of the Google relationship in part because under the terms of their deal, Google would not let Apple offer important map features like turn-by-turn spoken directions. A Google spokesman, Nate Tyler, declined to comment.

While Google knew that Apple eventually wanted to build its own maps, there had been no indication that it would do so this year, since there was about a year left on the contract between the two companies, according to people briefed on the negotiations who did not want to be named discussing internal matters.

So Google was blindsided when Apple announced in June that it would replace Google's maps with its own in a new version of its iOS mobile operating system, and was left scrambling to figure out how to respond, these people said.

Google is now developing its own maps app for iOS and plans to release it before the end of the year.

According to a former Apple executive who has been in touch with his old colleagues, Apple was caught off guard by the map problems. "They're embarrassed by it," he said. Many of the problems are a result of merging map data, some of it flawed, from many sources.

At the same time, the complaints do not seem to have damaged the response to the iPhone 5, which was released just over a week ago with the new operating system on it. Apple said it sold more than five million of the phones by the end of the first weekend of sales. People with older iPhones and iPads have installed the iOS 6 software with the new maps service on more than 100 million devices, Apple said.

The company has had better luck with other online efforts. The iTunes store remains the biggest seller of music in the country, and the iCloud service that replaced MobileMe has been relatively trouble-free.

But other Internet efforts have been disappointments, including Ping, a social network for iTunes users that Apple is shutting down after customers largely ignored it. Siri, a feature first introduced with the iPhone 4S last year, has been criticized for its unreliability and frequent downtime.

Leslie Grandy, a former Apple manager who ran its online store, said it had been challenging for Apple to rapidly develop new and better versions of its services to compete with Internet-focused rivals.

"I think there's a bigger question of whether hardware companies can be services companies," she said.

Claire Cain Miller contributed reporting.

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This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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