To its credit, Apple usually gets things right. But when it makes mistakes, the company takes a while to acknowledge them — begrudgingly. Bad iPhone 4 reception? You're holding it wrong.
So CEO Tim Cook's recent mea culpa acknowledging the failure of Maps in the iPhone 5 and any models updated to iOS 6 — more than 100 million individual phones — was a shocker in itself. "We are extremely sorry for the frustration this has caused our customers," Cook wrote on Apple's site. But recommending alternative apps that are better than Apple's own, including Google's and Microsoft's, was unprecedented.
How could Apple nail it so well with the iPhone 5 (some Wi-Fi and possible battery problems notwithstanding), but blow it so badly with Maps? A lot of it came from failed negotiations with Google, but Apple also has a long history of messing up online services. And global mapping is an especially complex service.
Apple's Waterloo moment is still MobileMe, an online syncing service for Apple mobile devices and computers that launched in July 2008. The service was meant to sync email, contacts and calendars between any combination of iPhones, iPod Touches, Macs and PCs. It also synced Web browser bookmarks and provided online file storage. MobileMe launched with frequent outages, delayed syncing, garbled sync data and sometimes lost information.
Even tech columnist Walt Mossberg, frequently accused of being an Apple fanboy, wrote, "Unfortunately, after a week of intense testing of the service, I can’t recommend it, at least not in its current state … The problems I am citing are systemic."
It was especially infuriating for users because they had paid $100 per year for the service (while Google offered and continues to offer many similar services for free). Until today, MobileMe had been Apple's biggest moment of humility.
MobileMe's successor, iCloud, does seem to have gotten things right. But it largely copies what services like Google and Dropbox have been offering for years.
Then there's Ping, Apple's attempt at a social network, built around music, that was integrated into iTunes. The service launched on September 1, 2010 and will close down this Sunday (Sept. 30). A deal to connect it with Facebook fell apart, leaving Ping as an under-populated island. As Cook said on May 30th (as reported by Wired), “We tried Ping, and I think the customer voted and said this isn’t something that I want to put a lot of energy into.”
The iTunes online marketplace, by contrast, has been a great success, one that remade the entire music industry. Apple hasn't figured out this whole streaming music thing that may be taking iTunes's place, however. ITunes is still successful, so Apple may not want to mess with a good thing. But meanwhile, Pandora, Spotify and others are building great services, and Apple is nowhere to be seen.
Apple does stream video to its current Apple TV, set-top box. But even there, the company had to include Netflix streaming to make the product more appealing. (Netflix works great on the Apple TV, by the way.) The box also features Hulu+, YouTube and Vimeo, among others.
Apple made a similar move to allow other networks in when it integrated Twitter into its last mobile operating system, iOS 5, and then its latest computer software, OS X Mountain Lion. It's now brought Facebook into the mix, too, with iOS 6.
But despite its new enthusiasm for Twitter and Facebook, Apple doesn’t use the networks very effectively. Its Facebook page has about 7.6 million likes. That's pretty good, but Coca Cola has nearly 51 million. Coke regularly posts on its wall, garnering thousands or tens of thousands of likes and often hundreds of comments per post. Apple's Facebook page is bereft of posts.
Fortunately, there are workarounds for Apple's Internet glitches. People who don't want to use iCloud (or who don't own Apple products exclusively) can use Google instead. Google works perfectly on Android, of course, but it also easily syncs email and contacts on iOS devices. (A $2 app called AllSync allows it to sync calendars, too.) And Dropbox can sync most everything else.
Plus, Pandora, Spotify and other music-streaming services make apps for iOS, as do Netflix and Hulu+ for video. (Kindle and Nook ebook apps are also available.) And thanks to Tim Cook, we also have a list of Maps alternatives: Bing, MapQuest and Waze in the App Store, as well as the Web-app versions of Google Maps and Nokia Maps.
Cook's public humbling over "Mapsgate" might be considered a sign of weakness. But in coming clean in the first week, and even proposing alternatives, he's showing that Apple recognizes its mistakes and wants to help out customers. If Apple really learns from these mistakes, it may have a brighter future online.