Apple’s map flub in the battle for mobile control

Renowned perfectionist Steve Jobs would likely not have been pleased with Friday’s launch of the new iPhone 5 in North America, Germany, Britain, Japan and other countries.

Amid all the glowing superlatives about the device’s screen, design and features, was a growing rumble of complaints about what is arguably one of a smartphone’s most central functions – helping users navigate the physical world more easily than we could ever have imagined just 10 years ago.

Until Friday, the near-ubiquitous Google Maps app had performed this function brilliantly. As the default mapping program on Google’s own Android operating system and on all previous versions of Apple’s iPhones and iPads, it enjoyed a near monopoly on smartphones. It was a constant companion for hundreds of millions of people needing to get from A to B and find out about their surroundings.

It’s clearly one of the most valuable pieces of real estate in the cyber world. And with Apple and Google battling so fiercely for supremacy in the 220-billion-dollar-per-year smartphone market, Apple chief executive Tim Cook decided to take back that invaluable space in the iPhone and replace Google Maps with Apple’s own mapping app.

The outcry erupted as the new phone’s shortcomings and absurdities were discovered by millions of curious new users.

The headlines in the mainstream press were bad enough: “Apple Makes a Wrong Turn,” noted a Wall Street Journal headline, while ABC News called it a “rare Apple flub.”

“I have to wonder if Steve Jobs would have let a product in this state out the door,” huffed Larry Selzer, the editorial director of Byte.

But it was on the blogosphere where the fiasco really played out. A new blog on Tumbler sarcastically named The Amazing iOS 6 Maps attracted thousands of the most egregious mapping absurdities found on the new program around the world.

In Britain, directions to the world-famous Manchester United Football Club took users to Sale United, a local children’s team. That wasn’t as bad as the disappearance into thin air of Gothenburg, Sweden’s second city of 510,000 inhabitants.

More nobly, the app attempted to solve a raging diplomatic crisis by creating two identical sets of a group of islands disputed between Japan and China, one in Japanese and another in Chinese.

Another major omission was navigation directions for public transport – a much-used part of Google’s offering.

The scandal was shaping up to be even worse for Apple than Antennagate, when the vaunted aesthetics of Apple’s design got in the way of cellphone reception on the iPhone 4 in 2010, according to analyst Patrick Moore. “Maybe it’s even worse, since mapping is such a core feature of the smartphone, something that users use many times on a daily basis,” he told Computerworld.

In that case Apple changed the design and gave users of existing phones a special case to fix the problem. Now Apple has to act swiftly to rectify the maps mistake and integrate a public transport update, if it wants users to rely on its program rather than alternative maps.

For now Google has not released its Maps program as a standalone iPhone app. The bigger question is whether Apple would approve one.

So far the company is sticking with plans to stay independent, even though its explanation was not totally reassuring to those who must rely on the new map.

“We are just getting started with it,” Apple spokeswoman Trudy Miller told the blog All Things D. “We are continuously improving it, and as Maps is a cloud-based solution, the more people use it, the better it will get.”

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Apple’s map flub in the battle for mobile control