iOS 6's Apple Maps: Yes, it's that bad

A flawed cornerstone app ships despite developer warnings, signaling that perhaps pride is prized over quality at Apple

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My preferred option is a nav app like Navigon that downloads maps to your iOS device so you don't need an Internet connection to see where you are or get directions. Instead, all you need is line-of-sight access to a GPS satellite, as is true for any navigation system.

Apple: Pride trumps quality?
After several days of increasing customer complaints, Apple this weekend said it will improve the Maps app over time. That's nice, but Apple should have swallowed its pride and kept the original Google Maps app in iOS 6 until the homegrown Apple version was ready for the real world. Yes, after making so much fuss about dumping rival Google, with which it is fighting an increasingly bitter war over Android, that would have been embarrassing. But it would have been less embarrassing than shipping a navigation product that can't navigate reliably.

And delaying Apple Maps' debut until it could be trusted would have sent a clear signal that Apple values quality over all else, as the company constantly claims to do.

It's not clear why Apple Maps is so wrong, and thus how long it will take to make it reliable. After all, it uses the map data from the TomTom navigation system -- one relied on by people all over the world. The problem seems to be in the Apple software itself, not the source data.

Apple may also be facing another major flaw: There are widespread reports that the new iPhone 5's anodized aluminum bezel is easily scratched and nicked, which causes the black or white coating to come off, revealing the raw aluminum beneath. Some people, including three staffers at the Wall Street Journal's AllThingsD website, say their new iPhone 5s were pre-scratched in the box. If the new finish is that easily damaged, Apple's paean to its attention to product detail at the recent iPhone 5 launch event will be shown as a hollow claim. Apple has yet to comment on the scratch concerns, but did say today it has sold 5 million units. That could be a huge recall. Or it could be much ado about nothing, like the untrue "burning iPad" claims this spring. A couple people I know who got iPhone 5s ths weekend say they've had no scratch issues.

UPDATE 9/28/12: After spending time with a loaner iPhone 5 unit, I'm convinced the scratch claims are overblown, probably due to a few problematically cured devices.

I don't believe, as some pundits suggest, that the Maps problem or potential bezel problem signals the end of the Steve Jobs era, indicating that the company's singular attention to quality died with him. After all, Apple has been here before. Its had display problems with an earlier generation of iMacs that it downplayed, ongoing issues with its Thunderbolt technology that caused a series of firmware updates, and a flawed but unacknowledged charging system in a previous MacBook generation that killed batteries after a year. Apple's quality may be better than the competition's, but it wasn't perfect under Jobs and isn't perfect now.

The bigger issue is how Apple handles such problems, which has usually been through denial and then quiet fixes that pretend there wasn't an issue. For example, a couple years ago a purported flaw in the iPhone 4's bezel design caused some users to lose 3G signals, which Apple initially ignored, then claimed as false, and finally resolved in a backhanded way with free bumper cases -- all without ever admitting there was a real issue. A couple years before that, Apple's MobileMe service debuted with gaping flaws, causing an angry Steve Jobs to fire the project leader on the spot -- but nothing was said publicly.

At the end of his life, Jobs seemed a bit more able to admit to mistakes publicly. Just last year, for example, he was able to joke about the MobileMe failure when introducing the replacement iCloud, promising Apple wouldn't repeat the MobileMe mistake. But, it has done so with Apple Maps.

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