The real problem with Apple’s maps isn’t the maps; it’s Apple’s whole strategy

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Apple senior vice president Scott Forstall demonstrates turn-by-turn directions in Apple maps at the Apple developers conference in June 2012
Apple senior vice president Scott Forstall demonstrates turn-by-turn directions in Apple maps at the Apple developers conference in June 2012
Image: AP / Marcio Jose Sanchez

Apple’s weakness: it doesn’t have its head in the cloud

Apple’s MapGate problem—in which millions of frustrated customers discovered that the maps app on Apple’s iPhone 5 can hardly identify major landmarks, much less give directions—isn’t just a glitch. It’s a symptom of the fact that the company made a substantially different bet on the future from Google, whose maps app came with previous versions of the iPhone.

The bet revolves around cloud computing, the use of massive data-processing centers to which other computers can connect over the internet. As management consultant Kontra (and yes, that’s the only public-facing name he goes by) notes on his blog, Apple has never created a heavyweight cloud-based system, unlike all of its rivals.

Unlike Google (Big Table), Facebook (Cassandra), Yahoo (Hadoop), Amazon (Dynamo) and others that have accumulated big data storage, processing and operational expertise, Apple’s not been a magnet for data scientists or web-scale infrastructure, automation, real-time analytics and algorithm design professionals.

Hadoop, Cassandra et alia may not be household names, but techies know them as immensely powerful cloud-based systems that crunch vast amounts of data. Hadoop, for example, is key to splitting giant workloads (such as search traffic or email) across countless servers in data centers around the globe.

Apple’s cloud is just, well, a cloud…

Apple, of course, does a lot in the cloud: it has the world’s most popular music download service (iTunes) and the world’s biggest market for content (the App store), both of them cloud-based. The difference is that Apple uses the cloud mainly for storing content—your music, email or pictures—and piping it to your phone or computer. Tasks like mapping, however, require that more labor-intensive stuff be done in the cloud, and that’s what Apple’s competitors excel at. Here’s how Jason Hiner of Tech Republic put it when Apple first announced its iCloud service, where it backs up contacts, pictures, email and calendars:

Apple’s approach is not to use the cloud as the computer-in-the-sky [that] runs all the cool stuff. It doesn’t want or need everything to happen in the cloud. Instead, it views the cloud as the conductor of Grand Central Station who makes sure all of the trains run on time and that they make it to the right destinations.

Apple’s business bet, in other words, is on the beautiful devices it makes. It sees the cloud chiefly as a way to share content across those devices, so that you buy more of them. (The company readily admits that it runs iTunes and its App store at just above break-even.) Google, on the other hand, is betting on a future in which the device you use is unimportant as long as it has a good connection to the internet. Anything you might do on the device is simply hosted in the cloud, whether that’s ordinary software (Google Docs) or an entire operating system (Google Chrome OS).

Thus Google is in the business of running things on remote servers and delivering the results to you in a pleasing manner. Apple isn’t.  That’s why its maps app was a failure.

…while Google’s cloud is everything

So why make a maps app at all, instead of outsourcing it to Google as before? That worked fine before Apple and Google were competitors. But now that there are smartphones running on Google’s Android software, Google makes sure to cripple the mapping data that it sends to Apple, for example disabling turn-by-turn directions. So as long as Apple continues to depend on Google maps, its phones will be weaker than Google’s in one of the areas people use their phones for the most.

Now, Apple could instead highlight the many other mapping apps that are already available on the iPhone and iPad—which is precisely what Apple CEO Tim Cook did when he apologized for MapGate. The problem is that such apps are each specialized for certain tasks—finding restaurants in Yelp, for example, or traffic jams in Waze. There’s no one app that does it all, as Google Maps does.

As long as internet connectivity is fickle, Apple has an advantage. Its apps and content live on its phones, tablets and computers, where they are always available. All Apple’s cloud has to do is let you download new apps and content when connectivity is strongest, leaving Apple to concentrate on building pretty devices that work smoothly. But if Google is right and the future is ubiquitous internet connectivity, then Apple has a problem. More and more services will be moved on to the cloud, where Apple has yet to demonstrate any real expertise.