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What we can learn from Apple Maps and Steve Jobs

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Fortune recently reported just how bad the Apple iPhone 5 mapping really is. Specifically, the article cited a reader’s analysis of the Apple map of Canada’s province of Ontario, focusing on locating and identifying its cities and towns.  Of the 2,028 places that should have been named, 400 were correct, 389 were fairly close, 551 were clearly incorrect, and 688 were not on the map at all. The summary quote was: “Quality control on Apple Maps had to have been terrible.”

Until the iPhone 5, the iPhone mapping was considered very good, utilizing the Google product. Why did Apple feel compelled to spend the manpower and dollars to try to develop a competitive mapping product? For example, it would be hard to believe that an Apple mapping tool could be so superior to Google’s as to add incremental iPhone revenue. Being realistic, it is hard to imagine that Apple had any basis to believe it could even catch up with Google mapping. My belief is that it goes back to Steve Jobs and the value system he created for Apple.

From the initiation of Apple Computer in 1980, Steve Jobs was paranoid about owning every aspect of the user experience of Apple products. The best example of this is the original Macintosh product in the mid-1980s. Specifically, each Macintosh was loaded with proprietary software that made it extremely difficult for software developers to write new software for it. Also, the Mac had no slots that outside manufacturers could use for printed circuit boards that would slide into the computer and expand its memory, add math processors, or otherwise add to its usefulness.

This caused the Mac to founder. Even worse, whenever an employee got up the courage to question these practices, he or she was viciously attacked by Jobs. One employee described these attacks this way: “It was like unleashing a Doberman.” It was this stubborn possessiveness, and its negative impact on the Mac, that eventually got Jobs fired.

Even John Scully, the Apple CEO brought in from Pepsi, knew how to fix the Mac. He invited software developers to build applications that would run on it.  The most successful was Aldus and its desktop publishing software, which was the key application that saved the Mac and turned it into an efficient desktop publishing powerhouse.

In reading smartphone reviews as I look into getting a new phone, I was struck by a comment from a former iPhone user who had recently bought a Samsung Galaxy S III. The user noted that he was no longer tethered to iTunes and forced to load it on all his devices. On the one hand, iTunes does help build a uniform experience across devices.  On the other hand, it feels a bit like Big Brother is in control. I believe this is another manifestation of Steve Jobs and his interest of being in control of the total experience.

So, what does all of this have to do with mapping? Given that mapping is a pervasive and highly utilized smartphone tool on a smartphone, I suspect the culture at Apple built by Jobs causes the mindset to be one of wanting to control mapping, given its critical role. Internet, you can blame Jobs!

In the sense of full disclosure, I did spend seven years in the 1990s as the Microsoft chief operating officer; some would say I am biased, and that is probably true. However, there are two great leadership lessons in the Apple mapping flap.

  1.  The customer is always king, and before you make a change to the experience that user is having, you better have thoroughly verified that the change will be loved by a large majority of those customers.
  2.  Realize that you can’t do it all, nor should you; having partners that help you bring a great experience to your customers is a very good thing.

Mess-ups by Apple have been a rarity in recent years; this one has some valuable reminders embedded in it.

Bob Herbold is an author, public speaker and retired executive vice president and chief operating officer of Microsoft. Before joining Microsoft, he spent 26 years at Procter & Gamble, the last five as senior vice president of advertising and information services. Since retirement, he has divided his time between working as a consultant for his Herbold Group and as writer and public speaker focusing on leadership. Herbold has written three books. His latest, “What’s Holding You Back? 10 Bold Steps That Define Gutsy Leaders,” was released in February 2011 by Wiley/Jossey-Bass.