Pixel Envy

Written by Nick Heer.

Hold Me Closer, Betteridge

Any headline which ends in a question mark can be answered by the word ‘no’.

Apple never releases a perfect product. There are always shortfalls to be improved. My MacBook Air does not have an IPS screen, and the Thunderbolt Display it connects to lacks a headphone jack, despite having speakers. These shortcomings are obvious to anyone who has used these products. But, critically, these do not significantly impair the usage of the products for their intended tasks.

Maps is one of those rare products from Apple that’s noticeably lacking in its core functionality. It’s not terrible, but it’s not as good as the Google Maps it replaces1. There are only a handful of products from Apple where this has been the case—MobileMe would be another example. This product regression combined with the launch of a new iPhone has sent the fingers flying on keyboards around the world, predicting that Apple has begun its downward spiral of doom (cue ominous orchestral hit).

In my naïveté, I had assumed that my morning read of the New York Times would be spared from this. But then I hit the opinion pages, and Joe Nocera has to go and spoil that with his piece “Has Apple Peaked?” Well, with Betteridge at my side, I’d like to answer that. Let us dig in:

If Steve Jobs were still alive, would the new map application on the iPhone 5 be such an unmitigated disaster? Interesting question, isn’t it?

In his first sentence, he invokes the “If Steve were alive” trope, which is a good indication that this piece is going to be rife with ill-argued premises. We need an equivalent to Godwin’s Law for Steve Jobs’ ghost.

As Apple’s chief executive, Jobs was a perfectionist. He had no tolerance for corner-cutting or mediocre products. The last time Apple released a truly substandard product — MobileMe, in 2008 — Jobs gathered the team into an auditorium, berated them mercilessly and then got rid of the team leader in front of everybody, according to Walter Isaacson’s biography of Jobs.

According to John Paczkowski over at All Things D, the Maps team is under lockdown, frantically fixing bugs.

The three devices that made Apple the most valuable company in America — the iPod, the iPhone and the iPad — were all genuine innovations that forced every other technology company to play catch-up.

But were they perfect? No.

No doubt, the iPhone 5, which went on sale on Friday, will be another hit. Apple’s halo remains powerful. But there is nothing about it that is especially innovative.

Apart from the unfathomably precise production processes which result in a lighter and thinner body, completely custom silicon, reversible charge/sync cable, and crazy levels of miniaturization, sure. Nothing innovative.

I suppose what Nocera is referring to is the lack of obvious new-ness. The new iPhone doesn’t use a radically different industrial design language, and therefore doesn’t scream “hey, I have the hot new product.” Which is a problem for only the most shallow among us.

In rolling out a new operating system for the iPhone 5, Apple replaced Google’s map application — the mapping gold standard — with its own, vastly inferior, application, which has infuriated its customers. With maps now such a critical feature of smartphones, it seems to be an inexplicable mistake.

Didn’t we go over this?

And maybe that’s all it is — a mistake, soon to be fixed. But it is just as likely to turn out to be the canary in the coal mine. Though Apple will remain a highly profitable company for years to come, I would be surprised if it ever gives us another product as transformative as the iPhone or the iPad.

Apple has regressed on Maps, therefore the company is doomed to failure. See, Nocera? This is easy. Out of curiosity, why do you doubt that they’ll be able to transform another market?

Part of the reason is obvious: Jobs isn’t there anymore.

Sigh. Here we go.

It is rare that a company is so completely an extension of one man’s brain as Apple was an extension of Jobs. While he was alive, that was a strength; now it’s a weakness. Apple’s current executive team is no doubt trying to maintain the same demanding, innovative culture, but it’s just not the same without the man himself looking over everybody’s shoulder. If the map glitch tells us anything, it is that.

First of all, all of Apple’s maps-related acquisitions were made while Jobs sat in the CEO chair. They’ve been working on this for a while.

Second, this is a lazy rhetorical device:

If Steve Jobs were Apple, the company would have gone out of business before his body was in the ground. They are not one and the same. Sure, it may be a reflection of him, and he unquestionably was its visionary who was ultimately responsible for so many of its great products, and its remarkable success. But Apple is not Steve Jobs, nor vice-versa.

Stop bringing out the ghost of Steve Jobs. It’s lazy, and it’s meaningless.

Any other reason Apple is doomed, Joe Nocera?

But there is also a less obvious — yet possibly more important — reason that Apple’s best days may soon be behind it. When Jobs returned to the company in 1997, after 12 years in exile, Apple was in deep trouble. It could afford to take big risks and, indeed, to search for a new business model, because it had nothing to lose.

Fifteen years later, Apple has a hugely profitable business model to defend — and a lot to lose. Companies change when that happens.

There is absolutely some truth to this. Apple won’t bet the company on products at this point. But the cool thing is that they don’t have to. They have over a hundred billion dollars in the bank, and they’re going to experiment like crazy with it. How do I know this? Because they’re already doing so.

The new generation of MacBooks has completely new battery technology. Apple is beginning to put the highest-resolution displays in their notebooks. They’re continuing to use the iPod nano as their industrial design sandbox. And, yes, they’re building their own mapping software.

Nocera continues:

Now it is Apple’s turn to be king of the hill — and, not surprisingly, it has begun to behave in a very similar fashion. You can see it in the patent litigation against Samsung, a costly and counterproductive exercise that has nothing to do with innovation and everything to do with protecting its turf.

I think the designers and engineers who created the iOS user interface would beg to differ.

And you can see it in the decision to replace Google’s map application. Once an ally, Google is now a rival, and the thought of allowing Google to promote its maps on Apple’s platform had become anathema.

Or, perhaps they saw handing control of a feature of their OS to a competitor as bad for business.

More to the point, Apple wants to force its customers to use its own products, even when they are not as good as those from rivals.

Now Nocera is just trolling. There’s no citation for this, no explanation, and no context. Nocera just threw this sentence in there, hoping nobody would notice how unsubstantiated it is.

Of course Apple would prefer you use its products—they are a business after all. I haven’t seen any stories about how they “forced” anyone to use them. But, hey, I must only be reading Apple zealot websites, like Hacker News and Digital Trends.

Even before Jobs died, Apple was becoming a company whose main goal was to defend its business model. Yes, he would never have allowed his minions to ship such an embarrassing application.

Oh, stop it already.

“Oh my god,” read one Twitter message I saw. “Apple maps is the worst ever. It is like using MapQuest on a BlackBerry.”

When I’m looking for hard-hitting technology-related commentary, I turn to @thompsonplaid.

Articles about how doomed Apple is are easy to write, and they make for quick advertising clicks. But I’m a little surprised that the New York Times would stoop to such a level. It’s shameful.


  1. Contrary to the suggestions of some pundits, I’m not saying that Google Maps is perfect, just that it’s often better in real-world use than Apple Maps. ↩︎