Apple Maps And The Danger Of Overestimating Your Company's Strengths

As if the release of the new iPhone 5 weren’t enough to jolt smartphone users of the world into action, Apple preceded its debut with an operating system upgrade. iOS6, unveiled two days before the slimmer and longer iPhone 5, left consumers and the media polarized. But one update everyone seemed to agree on was the subpar functionality of the new Apple Maps application.

As everyone now knows, iOS6’s developers replaced Google’s Maps application with Apple’s proprietary mapping utility, developed through company acquisitions and with help from TomTom. Initial reviews noted the lack of integrated transit directions (a default in Google’s Maps), location inaccuracies, missing landmark information, and imperfect (even melted!) 3-D views.

While the critical backlash hasn’t dented sales of the fifth-generation iPhone, we can apply this misstep to a larger enterprise issue: How should companies evaluate which functions are better outsourced and which should be maintained in-house? These often mission-critical decisions--when made out of haste or hubris--can be enough to put brand reputation and loyalty at stake.

Why do firms decide to bring otherwise outsourced functions in-house? In the case of Apple, clearly this was a message to its competition. Google’s Android devices are one of Apple’s top opponents in terms of market share. And at face value, giving its main competitor prime real estate on the home screen of tens of millions of iPhones and iPads everywhere seemed like an egregious concession of free, competitive advertising. But when it came time to execute on the strategy of bringing a previously open-sourced application in-house, it would appear that Apple’s product development team had neither the time nor skill set to be successful, thus propelling the brand into an unwanted spotlight.

Considering your company’s competitive landscape undoubtedly has a rightful place in any business-strategy decision, but in order to be effective, a strategy needs to incorporate other factors.

Beyond the inherent desire to keep competitors out of your product offering, there is a brief but crucial two-point checklist that business managers and C-level executives should use to successfully evaluate the potential to outsource or internalize: cost and competency.

Tackling the money issue may appear straightforward. A concise analysis of expenditures for building a product or service internally (talent acquisition, resources, technology, etc.) can be compared side by side to the same list for outsourcing prices, and in many cases, outsourcing is the cheaper option. But as we move from the textbook definition of “cost” to its real-world meaning and consider risks of quality control and undesirable outcomes, a more complex metric presents itself. What is the cost to the brand equity to deliver an inferior product or service?

This brings about the second and arguably more significant point of evaluation in these decisions: knowing the core competency of your company--“core” meaning a singular (if not more than three or four) strong point that differentiates your brand and maintains its competitive edge. If executing a particular strategy requires certain labor capabilities or technical proficiencies that do not fall within your core competency, outsourcing is the safer, more sensible route.

Apple’s strong point arguably is, and has always been, creating an elegant aesthetic and a user-friendly experience. The inner workings of digital cartography don’t directly fall under either of these camps. Based on the public’s consensus of the revamped maps, that much is clear.

There is no perfect theorem or quantitative test that accompanies this step. Gauging your business’s competency is as simple as recognizing what it is that you do best and consistently taking measures to highlight and build upon those strengths. Brands that excel at one thing in particular can charge a premium for the value-added; this becomes less true when product quality decreases. Before stepping beyond the boundary of your organization’s strength, managers need to ask themselves, “Does this make sense for us?”

Apple has not been the only household name to wrestle with a corporate identity crisis. Last June, Google came under similar heat for the launch of Google+, the social network touted to go profile-to-profile with Facebook...except it didn’t. Adding connections to “circles,” navigating the pseudo-wall--none of it was seamless or innovative enough to compel nearly one billion existing Facebook users to switch.

In order to maintain brand consistency, a fundamental principle of corporate strategy is that you can’t be all things to all people. It’s simply not practical from an execution perspective, and it muddies the message of how customers view your identity in the marketplace. This harks back to recognizing the key strengths of your business, but it also hints at the easily neglected divide between operational capabilities and customer-facing strategy.

Whether it was a looming deadline, an understaffed development team, or missing information, Apple--despite being a company that has historically exceled at delighting its end users--wasn’t able to deliver on its customer requirements with Apple Maps. And this particular case illustrates the outcomes that can result when companies choose to embark on strategies that are inconsistent with their operational capabilities to execute.

Ultimately, Apple, like Google before it, will not crumble from the backlash; surely Apple has new builds of the app already under development, and it’s unlikely that fans of its products will defect due to the shortcomings of Apple Maps 1.0. But in other circumstances, similar decisions can have much higher stakes, and companies of any size would be wise to learn from this faux pas.

Choosing to bring a new capability in-house is an exercise in honesty and objectivity, in terms of evaluating your own corporate identity and value proposition. And it is a decision that is best executed by taking personal pride (and even impatience) out of the formula. While some strategic moves may seem like a quick way to win a battle, presenting the best offering will ultimately win the war.

Liz Larsen is director of consulting services at Navint Partners.

[Image: Flickr user Simon Grubb]

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17 Comments

  • Dudeisms

    Liz Larson,... a consultant.  It appears as if you are merely feeding the bulk of the basis of "consultant jokes".  Did you really do your research?  I'm of the opinion that you did not.  Apple had a year left on their contract with Google for Google Maps.  They have been in a long time battle, in requesting turn by turn directions feature which has been on Android devices for years.  Google would not port turn by turn directions to Apple for use in IOS based devices, so they released the Maps app instead.  I believe it is safe to assume there is a massive amount of iPhones out there.  Many people use their iPhones for GPS based directions.  How safe is it for people to keep staring at their phones while driving?  There is a consensus out there that believes it isn't safe to drive and text, so I ask why would it be safe to stare at your maps application and keep pressing an arrow with each turn?  I understand that Apple and Google aren't exactly the best of friends at the moment.  But Apple did the right thing here.  Does no one remember how atrocious Google Maps was in the beginning?  Well for those of you who don't remember... it was pretty bad.  The only way to truly develop a good mapping application is to put it out into the wild, grab user data, and take corrections.  The map app isn't perfect, but in my own use it isn't bad at all.  I also feel much safer with spoken turn by turn directions... but that doesn't make for these headlines.  Thanks for being apart of the biased media who doesn't do their homework.

  • Zeke

    “When it came time to execute on the strategy of bringing a previously open-sourced application in-house, it would appear that Apple’s product development team had neither the time nor skill set to be successful, thus propelling the brand into an unwanted spotlight.”What in the world are you talking about Liz? Open source? Apple outsource? Do you even know who Apple is? Couldn’t you somehow work in “best practices” and “zero tolerance” amidst the rest of your gibberish?

  • I. M. Wright

    What it comes down to is that no corporation is allowed to make a mistake because they're all perfect.  If 95% of your product is good but there is 5% not so good, a company should be criticized heavily because it has done some major wrong.  Of course, Apple has too much money to be allowed to make any wrong choices.  Most of those out there criticizing I suppose never make mistakes.  Should Apple be allowed any time at all to correct any mistakes.  No, I guess not.  I guess it's better for people to just start panicking and start complaining non-stop because Map app v.1.0 isn't as perfect as Google Maps v.6.0 or whatever.

    Fortunately, all this whining is not going to slow down iPhone 5 sales one bit.  Apple will still as many iPhones as they can make.  Most of the people blogging about the horrors of Apple's Map app likely don't even own iPhones.  They're just out there to stir up controversy.  I hardly think that most consumers are going to dump their iPhones and go buy Android smartphones just because that platform has a better map application.  There are still third-party apps that iPhone users can take advantage of.  Wah! Wah! Wah!.  Map app 1.0 isn't perfect.  Man-up and get over it.

  • Eldersignin

    Good comments.  Also add that Apple has posted alternate map programs to use and the web version of Google is even free.   So its not really a big thing.  

    Plus, even Google did not think that Apple would stand up to it.  When Apple said,,,,, no thank you, we will use our own maps and dropped google maps,  google had to /// is having to struggle to make a google maps app and it looks like it will take them at least 2-3 more months.... 

    Shame on Google.  Why didn't they see this, pushing Apple too far.....  

    Just a thought. 

  • Planetgreen

    I think the whining should be stopped by you IM Wright and no one else....

    You're the typical lame Apple apologist who has an excuse for every thing Apple does wrong.  I'm sure you're the first to jump on other companies who make mistakes aren't you...they call that a hypocrite.

    You want the ultimate childish act?  Look no further than your whiny Apple company who sued Samsung for making products that are faster, better, and more powerful than your Iphone...just in time too since Apple was going to have their a$$ handed them.

  • Eldersignin

    So, its ok for you to whine like a little boy but no one else. ????????  

    Tell your mom, its your dinner time.......... Take the bib. 

    Just a thought. 

    PS. most countries around the world work because they ... mostly.... follow the law.  It keeps things from degrading into a criminal mess. 

  • Matt

    There is such a thing as beta testing your product before you launch it to millions of people. When you are as big as apple is and you flaunt it as they do. You had better make your product PERFECT by testing the hell out of it before you launch it as a revolutionary product. I think Apple launched their maps app prematurely and they will be criticized more so, for not providing a product that meets the high standards that they themselves have set for the industry. Apple is a big ship and big ships don't change course quickly. 

  • Eldersignin

    There is a difference between 30 people trying to find errors 8 hours a day to 100 million people trying 12 hours a day.   You do the math. LOL

  • Matt

    I think Apple going with a different maps integration may also have to do with Google's pricing change in March of this year. http://techcrunch.com/2012/03/... It probably was getting rather expensive for Apple to continue using Google Map's. Ever since I heard about the pricing increase I wondered how Apple would handle it. Unfortunately, not well! This is enough to make me NOT want the iPhone 6...errr I mean iPhone 5 with iOS 6. 

  • ToxMarz

    That is a different issue. That is with regards to the use of Google Maps on a website and the number of calls you make to their API. That is not the arrangement Apple would use. They have said they had a year left on the deal they had with Google so they apparently threw that away too.

  • Eldersignin

    Google would not allow Apple to upgrade to all the new features like turn by turn etc.  Google was not playing nice and Apple made the decision now rather than later.   There is some great analysis and detail if you look around.  Try daniel Eran Dilger.  Smart man. 

  • Robert Powell

    The whole Apple Maps topic is a non-issue really; just something for a few people to criticize Apple about. I have had zero problems with it and, in fact, its turn by turn visual and vocalized directions is something Google was never going to do for iOS and Apple because they were using that as a selling point for Android phones. So Apple pretty much had to do it. Also, remember when Google Maps first came out? It was primitive. Apple Maps is leaps and bounds better than that was and it is really good for a first iteration of software. No one who hasn't built a map application before could have done it as well as Apple did it.

  • Darkm4g

     Apple didn't build Apple Map. It was based on TomTom, which is not only overpriced but also not working so well map app. It's very sloppy and unthoughtful for apple to compromise with something that so many users dependent on. Apple always provide the best user experience. if they launch Apple Map after they perfected it without so much flaws I don't see any problems. To suddenly replace something that perfectly working with trashy app is unacceptable move and apple have gain mistrust from it's user. If they don't make up and update their apple map with better improvement I don't see Apple can improve or even maintain their brand.

  • Eldersignin

    First, Robert Powell,,,, great comments. Thoughtful and correct. 

    Darkm4g,   When you do not have the facts, you can make bad analysis.  
    Apple would have stayed with google if google would let them upgrade.  Google was not playing nice so Apple took their ball and 100 million users home.  Google has now lost that input data and may lose up to 400 million more.  Siri caused google to lose advertising money cause siri looks at google data but ignores the advertising.  

    Multi hundreds of millions of users will NO LONGER use google hundreds of times per day.   Trillions of google ad views have just disappeared.  Google is at the start of a very bad place. 
    Just a thought.

  • Zschmiez


    Siri would be really screwed if Google pulled that as well no?  Would Apple go to Bing?  Yahoo?

    "hundreds of millions of users NO LONGER use google hundreds of times per day"....  Who the heck is using Google 100 times a day, on a phone (let alone multi-1.0X10^8 users)?  

    Quit lying to make whatever point you are trying to.