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The death of competitive advantage: How Apple Maps drove off the road

Apple's decision to include homegrown Apple Maps in its latest iPhone offering demonstrates a huge process-fail lesson for CIOs.

One consistent thread in the scores of iPhone 5 reviews has been mention of how the native Apple Maps in iOS6 are an undeniable downgrade. Users of previous iOS incarnations enjoyed Google Maps technology, which was featured prominently in the very first iPhone ads back in 2007. In the development of the latest iOS, Apple developers pushed hard to deliver voice-activated, turn-by-turn navigation to their native Apple Maps -- and, in that respect, they made good on that goal.

Wendy SchuchartWendy Schuchart

Unfortunately, in a broader sense, the new Apple iOS 6 maps just don't deliver. What we have here is a massive quality breach with actual health and safety implications -- not to mention the unbelievable cost of fossil fuels and the environmental impact of carbon emissions exhausted by people driving around in circles based on the crazy directions given by Apple Maps.

For instance, the new maps think that much of the east side of Portland, Ore., is a nature reserve; and the satellite image is even worse -- it looks like a scene from the movie Inception. Lest you think that Portland is a special case, it's not. Entire major tourist attractions in Europe are missing, the Statue of Liberty vanished, malls have been misplaced and highways are shown going off into bodies of water. Even worse, the maps depict bridges where there aren't any bridges. This PR nightmare has even inspired the Twitter hashtag #iOS6apocalypse, where iPhone 5 users report their own crazy mishaps with the new Apple Maps.

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As someone who relies upon her iPhone for navigation, it's pretty terrible. I really don't care that the Apple Maps images make trees look like giant stalks of broccoli or make the Las Vegas Strip look like a Salvador Dali painting -- I just want a map that I can trust to get me from here to there safely and efficiently.

Why did CEO Tim Cook decide to abandon Google Maps in favor of developing its own? It comes down to vendor management. Google was already delivering turn-by-turn navigation to Android phones, yet it hadn't begun working on turn-by-turn voice navigation maps for the iPhone 5. The Verge's Chris Ziegler reported that Apple still had more than a year remaining on its Google Maps contract, but chose to not to take advantage of this remaining time period.

Strategically, I'm not terribly surprised that Apple chose to end the relationship in an effort to keep up with Android's technology (or block Google from having more control and branding in Apple's biggest offering). However, from a quality standpoint, Apple has essentially thrown the baby away with the bathwater. The lack of voice turn-by-turn navigation is, admittedly, a minor nuisance, but certainly not the deal breaker that Apple executives envisioned. And, as a consumer, let's face it -- bad maps are worse than having no maps at all.

This huge PR nightmare serves as a valuable strategic lesson for CIOs in similar product development projects. In Apple's rush to alleviate a strategic pain-point, company heads forgot one vital piece of information: IPhone users weren't really willing to sacrifice reliable maps for the luxury of a voice that tells us when to turn (especially when that voice is telling us to turn in the middle of an overpass). Apple demonstrated that it was willing to sacrifice the quality of a product in order to make a swipe at gaining competitive advantage in the marketplace.

But Apple has also suffered unexpected costs thanks to this decision – a lesson that CIOs can take to heart. For years, Apple has practically trained its users to have a cult-like trust in its products. But now, with Apple maps, navigation no longer "just works." To paraphrase mobile industry blogger Ewan MacLeod, second-guessing an Apple product didn't even occur to me. Apple's strongest intangible feature was the trust it had built by always delivering a painstakingly tested product.

When reacting to competitors, CIOs need to make sure they aren't sacrificing their end goals in a fruitless, un-vetted effort to gain competitive advantage.

Let us know what you think about the story; email Wendy Schuchart, site editor. For midmarket IT news and updates throughout the week, follow us on Twitter @ciomidmarket.

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