Apple’s bad turn leads to CEO’s apology

All week, iPhone users grew more annoyed. When they used Apple’s new mobile maps, they found nonsensical routes and misplaced landmarks. Bloggers and talk-show hosts mocked the sometimes bizarre errors.

Nine days after the maps’ release, the Washington Monument was still on the wrong side of the street. But something else changed.

Timothy Cook, Apple’s chief executive, released an apologetic letter to customers Friday, making the remarkable suggestion that they try map services from rivals such as Microsoft and Google while Apple improves its own maps.

“We are extremely sorry for the frustration this has caused our customers, and we are doing everything we can to make Maps better,” Cook wrote.

The map problems were an embarrassing misstep for a company that strives for perfection in its products and, in the eyes of consumers, often gets pretty close to the mark. Its track record in delivering quality is one reason Apple is now the most valuable public company in the world.

Apple executives have tried to explain their move into maps by saying that the company could no longer afford to rely on Google, its former map provider and growing rival, for such a crucial function. Many analysts and technology executives agree that this was the right move for the long term. But Apple appears to have rushed its map service out prematurely, even though it could have continued to rely on Google until next year.

The outcry shows how map services, which Apple treated as an afterthought when it built the first iPhone, have become critical tools for millions of people. And the company’s stumble fits in with its pattern of bungling services that rely heavily on the Internet.

Apple has a reputation for obsessive attention to detail in its hardware and software products, down to the beveled edges of the iPhone 5 and the shade of the icons on its screen. But it has stubbed its toe again and again when it comes to releasing reliable, well-designed Internet services.

Its less proud moments include Ping, a social network for music that fizzled; MobileMe, an error-plagued service for synchronizing data between devices; and Siri, the voice-activated assistant that can be hard of hearing.

The company’s weakness in this area could become a bigger problem over time as smartphones become more intimately tied to information and software on the Internet — a field where Google, which makes the competing Android phone software, has the home-turf advantage.

“I always felt if you had to name an Achilles’ heel at Apple, it’s Internet services,” said Andrew Borovsky, a former Apple product designer who now runs his own design firm.

An Apple spokeswoman, Natalie Kerris, declined to comment.

Some have sought to pin the blame for the maps debacle on a relaxing of standards under Cook, who was elevated from the No. 2 position at Apple just over a year ago. He took over shortly before the death of Steve Jobs, a notorious perfectionist known to shelve products that did not pass muster.

But interviews with former Apple employees in the wake of the maps controversy made it clear that Jobs and other executives rarely paid as much attention to Internet services as they did to the devices for which Apple is best known. Nor did they show the kind of consistent foresight that has served the company well in designing hardware and software.

Including a maps app on the first iPhone was not even part of the company’s original plan as the phone’s unveiling approached in January 2007. Just weeks before the event, Jobs ordered a mapping app to show off the capabilities of the touch-screen device.

Two engineers put together a maps app for the presentation in three weeks, said a former Apple engineer who worked on iPhone software. The company hastily cut a deal with Google to use its map data.

Relying on Google, which had introduced its map service a couple of years earlier, made sense. Apple and Google had generally friendly relations, and Google’s chief executive at the time, Eric E. Schmidt, served on Apple’s board.

But the relationship chilled in 2008 after Google began building iPhone-like features into Android.

As the iPhone began to catch on, Apple executives were surprised by the popularity of the map function. It began to bother executives how much data about the behavior of iPhone users was flowing back to Google, which could see the coordinates of every iPhone user who downloaded a map.

So having its own map app now is important for Apple — though the initial execution is buggy. Many of the problems are a result of merging map data from many sources.

And while Apple tries to get its bugs out, Google is developing its own maps app for Apple’s new operating system and plans to release it before the end of the year.