Apple's Maps app blunder ranks with 'Antennagate' in missteps, say experts

Has 48 to 72 hours to deal with firestorm of criticism, get Google Maps into the App Store

Apple's stumble with its new mapping app is a debacle right up there with 2010's "Antennagate," analysts said today.

"This ranks with 'Antennagate,'" said Patrick Moorhead, principal analyst with Moor Insights & Strategy, of the 2010 public relations disaster when iPhone 4 owners reported that signal strength plummeted and calls were interrupted if they touched the newly-redesigned smartphone in certain ways. "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."

The term "Antennagate" was coined by former Apple CEO Steve Jobs, who led a hastily-called press conference in mid-July 2010 to deal with the backlash.

Apple has not gone that route yet, but it should, argued Dany Gaspar, director of digital strategy at Levick, a Washington, D.C. firm that helps companies deal with public relations emergencies.

"They need to regroup and get out a more aggressive statement and more detailed plan on how they will rectify this," said Gaspar. "They haven't provided the user with the necessary next steps that they will take. And this needs to happen now, within the next 48 to 72 hours. A week or two is centuries in social media."

Almost immediately after the launch of iOS 6, users who had updated their existing iPhones started complaining that Apple's new Maps app was substandard. They cited the lack of public transit maps, inaccurate maps, off-kilter points-of-interest, missing streets and addresses, and more.

Even long-time pundits who typically applaud Apple's moves noted the problems.

"The maps experience in iOS 6 is a downgrade," acknowledged John Gruber, who writes the Daring Fireball blog.

"The biggest drawback I found is the new Maps app," said Walt Mossberg, an influential columnist for the Wall Street Journal, in his review of the iPhone 5 on Thursday.

"Even the biggest of Apple's supporters have said that Maps aren't up to par. That says everything," said Moorhead.

Both Moorhead and Gaspar linked the subpar app baked into iOS 6 -- the mobile operating system that powers the iPhone 5, which started selling today -- with the feud between Apple and Google.

Apple has kicked out of iOS 6 both Google Maps and YouTube, another Google property that has been integrated with the iPhone's software since the smartphone's 2007 debut. Most analysts have said the bouncing of Google Maps and YouTube was the strongest signal yet of the companies' ratcheting rivalry.

Apple and Google were once close collaborators. Eric Schmidt, at the time Google's CEO, joined Apple's then-CEO Steve Jobs on stage at the iPhone's 2007 introduction, and served on Apple's board until 2009. Now, they are fierce competitors who have faced off in court, including a patent infringement case where Apple won a major verdict over Samsung, the biggest seller of Android-based smartphones.

"This all goes back to Steve Jobs declaring war on Android," said Moorhead, "and Apple thinking that Eric Schmidt, who was on the board at one point, stabbed them in the back."

"Of course, this speaks to the competition with Google," agreed Gaspar.

It's understandable that Apple wanted Google Maps gone, said Moorhead. "One of the key areas of monetization [on mobile] will be local ... local promotions, local advertising, local couponing ... and maps are a crucial part of that. Google knows that, Apple knows that. Apple had to disconnect itself strategically from a part of the experience that they did not control themselves."

"At WWDC, Apple dropped the hammer [on Google Maps], and drew a line in the sand," echoed Gaspar.

Whether it was a business-driven decision or not -- or even if it was not entirely Apple's doing, since Google may have been the one to withdraw its own mapping technology from iOS, perhaps by refusing to re-license it to Apple -- this was a major mistake.

"Apple has to have seen these [problems] with its Maps months ago," said Gaspar. "But they seemed to have believed that they were in a position where consumers would give them a pass."

Gaspar called that arrogance.

"It was very arrogant of them to assume that no one would have anything negative to say, especially with another iPhone coming out, that in the long term it would just go away," said Gaspar.

"There's no excuse for what Apple ultimately delivered," said Moorhead. "It's amazing what Apple thinks they can push on consumers."

Both experts said the fix was obvious.

"If nothing else, they need to be able to give users some sort of choice," said Gaspar. "They need to make Google Maps available through the App Store, even though the two are arch enemies."

"The first thing they need to do is fix it immediately, there's no talking point here," said Moorhead, noting that Apple's options are limited since it cannot magically make its own mapping solution better overnight. "They need to do something radical with Google, and help put Google Maps on iOS 6. Period."

Users won't be satisfied with anything less, Moorhead added.

"Overall, Apple made a PR blunder," said Gaspar, referring to an Apple statement yesterday which said, among other thing, that its own technology would improve the more customers used it. Not enough, not nearly enough, Gaspar said.

"They can ride this out if they make the necessary adjustments," said Gaspar. "They realize they made a mistake, but now they have to be upfront and explain what they're going to do, do it honestly, and do it sooner rather than later."

If Apple asked his advice, Gaspar said he would urge them to address the problem publicly in the next two to three days, max.

"They can weather this," said Gaspar. "But they need to move now, or people will start reconsidering whether to buy an iPhone 5 or not."

Gregg Keizer covers Microsoft, security issues, Apple, Web browsers and general technology breaking news for Computerworld. Follow Gregg on Twitter at @gkeizer, on Google+ or subscribe to Gregg's RSS feed. His email address is gkeizer@computerworld.com.

See more by Gregg Keizer on Computerworld.com.

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Gregg Keizer

Computerworld (US)

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