MIT Technology Review

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Fixing Apple Maps

The road ahead for Eddy Cue--assuming he can find it.

I happened to be on vacation during the Apple Maps debacle, and was almost entirely offline when the update rolled out (see, "Is Apple Losing Its Way?"). As a result, I narrowly avoided updating my iOS, and continue to use my old Google-fueled Maps application. But for those of you who are stuck with Apple Maps (and, let’s face it, for me, since I’ll have to update my OS one of these days), your fate rests in the hands of a man named Eddy Cue.

Bloomberg has a good report on Cue’s struggle to revamp Apple Maps, and in so doing, repairing the dents it caused in Apple’s brand. Cue recently fired Richard Williamson, who had supervised the maps program, says Bloomberg. That’s now a body count of at least two, with respect to Mapsgate; Scott Forstall reportedly was ousted from Apple in part over the mapping debacle.

How exactly has the rehabilitation of Apple Maps been proceeding? Bloomberg’s sources suggest it’s in part a kind of hard-coding triage, with the team fixing--perhaps even manually, since I can’t quite imagine another way--some of the most glaring errors in the application. For example, the app used to get wrong something extremely basic: the labeling of the Washington Monument. HuffPo aggregated some of the funniest Apple Maps fails: Apple Maps didn’t even get the location of the Apple Store right in Sydney, for instance.

Bloomberg adds that in large measure, fixing these problems involves “prodding” a company called TomTom NV; it’s the main provider for Apple Maps. The Dutch company was founded in 1991, per its website’s about page.

Truthfully, the Apple Maps affair smacks of a bit of hubris on the part of the company, which can at times seem invincible. But it throws into stark relief the fact that just because Apple has competency in some areas pertaining to mobile computing, that doesn’t mean it has competency in all of them. Google, as one analyst told Bloomberg, is essentially a services company, whereas Apple never really has been to the same extent; it makes sense that Google would be the one to get mapping right. “It’s difficult to replicate the same level of experience that Google has achieved over a long period of time essentially overnight,” the analyst, Noah Elkin of EMarketer Inc, said (see "Hey, Apple: Mapping Takes More Work than You Think").

Eddy Cue seems to be aware of this, to a greater extent than his predecessor. If you want to know more about Cue, you can’t do better than this CNET profile from around the time of the Forstall ouster. Greg Sandoval portrays Cue as a canny negotiator as well as something of a ray of sunshine in the company; he’s “affable,” an adjective I don’t recall seeing ascribed to Steve Jobs or Tim Cook recently. But he can still play bad cop, and Sandoval gives a fun anecdote of Cue playing hardball--remarkably politely--with Warner over music prices. This is a man who, in another instance, used a metaphor of nuclear deterrence to describe the iTunes Store’s dealings with music labels--and came out with a warmer relationship with them for it. 

I’m glad this is the guy who’s trying to fix Apple Maps, before I have to update my phone and inherit what many have widely panned as a broken product.