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Apple’s maps debacle – a bridge too far?

Oct 08, 2012 Business Daily, Management

“Whether it was a looming deadline, an understaffed development team, or missing information, Apple–despite being a company that has historically exceled at delighting its end users–wasn’t able to deliver on its customer requirements with Apple Maps. And this particular case illustrates the outcomes that can result when companies choose to embark on strategies that are inconsistent with their operational capabilities to execute.”

LIZ LARSEN, www.fastcompany.com (28 September, 2012)

As we all know, Apple made a major (and rare) misstep recently: it launched its own mapping application in the latest software update for its mobile operating system (iOS6), displacing the popular (and very good) Google Maps that previously sat on Apple’s system as a native app.

Most things Apple are very, very good. The quality of its devices and the ease of use and elegance of its software has propelled it to becoming the world’s most valuable company, in just a few short years since the first iPhone was introduced. Customers have come to expect design brilliance and great user experience in all things Apple.

Not this time, though. Apple Maps was not just bad, it was embarrassingly bad. Across the world, examples of egregious mapping errors poured in. In Nairobi, after trying out the application for the first time in a taxi and noting that I was apparently on Argwings KHOONEK road, heading for OTANGA road, I realized I would not be relying on Apple Maps in the immediate future.

In the era of social media, companies have nowhere to hide when they screw up this badly. Apple’s CEO Time Cook issued an unprecedented apology, eating humble pie and promising to make things better over time.

So what happened? How did Apple stretch itself this far, and why did it fail? Let’s not forget that little word, hubris. Apple has upended one industry after another: computing, music, movies, telephony. It has come in and rewritten the rules for incumbents with its desirable devices and elegant interfaces. It has bested existing giants like Microsoft, HP, Nokia, RIM and many others. Apple probably began to believe it could walk on water.

Maps, as we now all know, are different. Mobile maps take years to get right, and Google has had those years. Apple did not have the existing capabilities or the experience to transform the mapping experience, but it went ahead regardless. This is probably because of its ‘thermonuclear’ rivalry with Google and its Android operating system, which is now the worldwide market leader. Apple no doubt wished to make a statement by booting Google out of one the world’s most valuable pieces of real estate: the iPhone/iPad home screen.

It was the wrong statement. You can only beat your competitors ultimately by being better than them, not by locking them out. Apple deployed a protectionist strategy, not a competitive strategy. It is now licking its wounds.

It may not matter. Apple is too successful to be brought down by one app. It will work round the clock the make Apple Maps better, and who would want to bet against it? The iPhone 5 is the fastest-selling gadget in history, poor maps or not. The experience will no doubt give Apple a perhaps-overdue reality check.

But the rest of us can learn real lessons from this faux pas.

First, don’t ever let hubris cloud strategic decisions. You’re only as good as your last success. Second, there are limits to where even the most successful companies can go. You have to understand the source of your competitive advantage – your distinctive capabilities – very, very deeply. You should only expand into new products or markets where your existing capabilities allow you to be the best, or close to the best. There are limits to what even the best competitors can do in stretching their capabilities. Apple just discovered what they are.

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