Apple did something unprecedented today.
I’m not talking about Tim Cook’s apology for iOS 6 Maps. While it’s rare, Apple has apologized before, especially recently: see John Browett’s admission that the company had “messed up” when cutting shifts among Retail Employees, and Apple’s public about-face when pulling out of the EPEAT rating system. One of the things that makes Apple great is they’re not afraid to be as harsh on themselves as they are on the competition when they’ve fucked up.
No, what Apple did today is far more uncharacteristic than an apology. They suggested that you use a third-party app instead of their own.
In his public note to customers, Tim Cook wrote this:
While we’re improving Maps, you can try alternatives by downloading map apps from the App Store like Bing, MapQuest and Waze, or use Google or Nokia maps by going to their websites and creating an icon on your home screen to their web app.
Leaving aside the issue of how bad iOS 6 Maps is, it’s incredible to see Apple CEO not only start recommending third-party apps over their own, but launch a dedicated section of the App Store specifically to promote apps that can do the job better than their own can.
Consider this: it wasn’t that long ago that Apple was turning down apps left and right for offering the same functionality as iOS’s core apps. Apple has since loosened up restrictions on what kind of apps can be sold on the App Store, leading to an in-flux of alternative browsers, e-mail clients and more, but always, Apple has put forward its own apps as the best option, and given them favored privileges (for example, access to the Nitro engine that allows Mobile Safari to outpace other third-party browsers).
What if Tim Cook’s mention of other third-party mapping apps wasn’t just a necessary part of their iOS 6 Maps mea culpa, but is instead indicative of a changing attitude within Apple towards third-party apps as not necessarily being a threat to Apple’s core offerings?
Apple has a responsibility to provide the best core experience they can on their own platform, but what if they now recognize that there is little to fear from users exploring alternatives from the App Store? Not only does Apple get thirty cents out of every dollar spent on the App Store, but the excellent offerings there only help to lock people into Apple’s ecosystem.
So what? Well, let’s imagine for a second that iOS 6 launched not just with crappy Maps, but a new feature: the ability to declare any app, including third-party ones, as the default app for Mail, Browsing, Navigation and more.
As bad as iOS 6 Maps might have proven, I doubt that the public outcry over Maps would have been nearly as bad. If you didn’t like Maps and didn’t want to deal with it while Apple fixed it, you could just download another Maps program and make it your default. The rest of iOS would respect the change, and pass data to that maps app as if it were Apple’s own. Problem solved, with a lot less egg on Apple’s face.
The debacle of iOS 6 Maps has spent a lot of Apple’s good will currency with users, who have suddenly found a company that they trust throwing their lives into anarchy by replacing a tool they depended upon with a tool that is much, much worse. Maybe Apple’s learning a lesson from this: it’s time to stop trying to do everything themselves, which means no longer making third-party apps second class citizens on iOS.
If so, maybe one good thing will result from the Mapocalypse after all: the ability to choose your own default apps in iOS 7. Wouldn’t that be worth it?