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New York Times Misunderstands Maps App Situation

by Glenn Fleishman

When I started reading James Stewart’s New York Times “Common Sense” column titled “Apple’s Maps and Jobs’s Shadow,” I thought in the first two paragraphs that he had captured the nuance of Apple in transition from Steve Jobs to Tim Cook, and correctly offered the context of its last 12 months of financial success and the challenges ahead that the firm faces. Then I hit the third paragraph and it all goes downhill from there.

Stewart confuses the Maps app, a software application, with the mapping data that underlies it and the algorithms for driving directions that Apple put in place. He apparently doesn’t fully understand that competitive mapping and navigation programs have been available since 2009. He also wedges in a years-old decision on electronic book pricing that Jobs was instrumental in putting into place, and makes that something for which Cook bears responsibility — or doesn’t bear responsibility. It’s not clear. (After its original appearance, Stewart’s article was updated in several places, only one of which is noted in a correction that’s appended. The updates make many arguments even muddier, and I’ve attempted to note them.)

To start with, Stewart writes, “Apple hasn’t fully explained its decision to replace Google’s maps with its proprietary mapping application…” Apple has always written the Maps app, from its first appearance, and Google provided the data. Apple changed its data and directions provider from Google to its own set of licensed sources, which includes firms like TomTom and Waze according to information in the app itself. He also seems to be saying that the replacement happened in the iPhone 5, not other iPhone models that can run iOS 6, although owners of earlier models may opt to stay put in iOS 5 and continue to use the older Maps app with Google data (for now). [Update: Stewart’s article was later changed to eliminate “its proprietary mapping application” and to add a reference to iOS 6.]

He continues, “Apple’s use of its own mapping technology in the iPhone appears to be a textbook case of what’s known as a tying arrangement, sometimes referred to as ‘bundling,’” and goes on to make the case that buying an iPhone 5 requires the use of the Maps app. If that were the case, it would have been a problem from the first day the iPhone were offered, when it didn’t allow any third-party apps at all. Buying a new iPhone 4 or 4S today would also include iOS 6 and the new Maps app, although those models could theoretically be downgraded to iOS 5. [Updates: The article was later modified to remove the specificity of the iPhone 5. A reader informs us in the comments that downgrading an iPhone 4 or 4S is nearly impossible.]

Stewart tries to tie this to the battle between Microsoft and Netscape (and other firms) from the late 1990s into the 2000s. Microsoft bundled its own Web browser “to the exclusion of Netscape,” he writes, but that statement and those that follow miss many nuanced points that counter his analogy from that many-year legal and public-relations fight.

First, Internet Explorer was designed to be integral to Windows (and became more so over time), and it used proprietary technologies like ActiveX that made it impossible for a third-party Web browser to provide the same experience. While the Maps app can’t be deleted from iOS, and is integrated with Siri and works from the lock screen, those aren’t giant advantages over other available apps.

Second, it was alleged that Microsoft modified Windows to make it harder for third parties to write Web browsers that could work as well as Internet Explorer, and denied technical resources and support to boot. Since the release of third-party developer tools for iOS, that hasn’t been the case for Apple. In general, Apple has worked with each release to give developers more access to previously Apple-only features, such as adding limited background tasks. (True, some apps have privileged positions in iOS, and Apple has at times rejected competitive apps from the App Store.)

Third, Stewart claims that the situation was resolved in a way that “Microsoft eventually agreed that Windows users could designate their own Web browsers,” which is completely incorrect. Solely in Europe, Microsoft had to provide a kind of “ballot” that allowed users to pick among many browsers to use. It was never forced to unbundle in the United States nor most of the world. [Update: The article was revised to remove this whole reference for the reason I cite, and a new specious argument was put in its place.]

What happened, in fact, is that third-party Web browsers improved to a point at which they competed on performance and quality, especially for rendering sites that were designed to conform with Web standards. Along the way, Microsoft did an enormous about-face, and has spent years bragging about (and proving) how standards-compliant Internet Explorer’s releases have become with each new version.

Since the introduction of third-party apps to iOS, Apple has never to my knowledge restricted the distribution of mapping software. There are a few dozen programs available, many from major standalone GPS makers, some free, some for a fee. The MapQuest app, from a division of AOL that competes with Google Maps, has been in the App Store for years, and is both free and a delight to use. I’ve reviewed over 15 of these navigation apps over the last three years, and several are better than both the current Maps and Google’s mapping program in the Android operating system. (Google also supports alternative maps apps in Android.)

Stewart points out that Maps has its problems, which it does. He wonders if Jobs would have apologized as quickly and profusely as Cook did for the quality of data behind the Maps app (not the app itself, which is lovely and works quite well). He apparently forgets Jobs’s behavior around MobileMe, as even veteran tech reporters have done, in which Jobs apologized in public and via email to users who emailed him, fired the head of the division, and took months to get everything back in order.

Stewart says of Jobs, “He was famously resistant to the idea [of apologizing] after complaints about the iPhone 4’s antenna.” That was a more complex situation. Jobs clearly felt that a marginal situation was blown up beyond all proportion, especially since most cell phones had similar problems, often documented in their manuals. While Jobs never said “sorry,” the company redesigned the antenna as early as the Verizon model of iPhone 4, gave away free bumpers and cases for a few months, and sold many millions of that model. The problem went away because it simply wasn’t a consistent problem for the vast majority of users, who would otherwise have returned the phone or avoided it because of word of mouth.

At this juncture in the column Stewart confuses who wrote the Maps app before the iPhone 5 release, is unaware that it is available to all iOS 6 users, and seemingly doesn’t incorporate the fact that other mapping apps have long been available. He notes that worldwide, iOS has a minority share of the smartphone market, and then finally points out that Cook suggested users try “alternatives,” without also mentioning that these are free and paid map programs that work just as well or better in iOS than the built-in offering. That was true before iOS 6, too.

Stewart next throws in the red herring of the iBookstore and pricing arrangements, quoting from Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs. But isn’t this an article about Tim Cook’s problems in guiding Apple forward after the masterful hand of Jobs? Regardless, Stewart also disregards the opinions of those that oppose the Department of Justice’s lawsuits and settlements against publishers, which includes booksellers. The opponents believe it will establish Amazon as the monopoly player in the ebook market, presumably setting up a new antitrust situation that the DOJ would later have to address.

An expert that Stewart quotes says, “Historically, Apple hasn’t been very sensitive to antitrust issues.” Historically, Apple hasn’t been confronted with monopoly situations, so it’s hard to know what these issues might be.

Stewart closes by praising Tim Cook for his Maps apology (but didn’t he critique that as anti-Jobs earlier?), and suggests the antitrust suit should be settled quickly. He veers again — is he using Maps data for writing? — and appears to demonstrate his ignorance of the ecosystem once more, suggesting Cook should make “Google’s and other map applications readily available to iPhone users” as a break from the past, when that’s the current state of the market (Google reportedly isn’t yet developing its own Maps app for iOS), and Apple has been highlighting alternatives in the App Store since Cook’s letter appeared.

This muddle of a column comes from a normally sober and sensible financial reporter whose work I admire. Conflating the Maps app and its data along with a lack of knowledge (or, say, even asking the New York Times’s technology reporters) of the history of competing apps and the current availability of the same spreads misinformation. There’s plenty to critique about Apple’s premature release of the Maps app. This column has nothing worthwhile to contribute.


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