Image via The Amazing iOS 6 Maps Tumblr
Image via The Amazing iOS 6 Maps Tumblr

Apple releases a new product, and it becomes the major tech story of the cycle. A glitch is found in the product, and that, in turn, becomes the major tech story of the next cycle. Apple quietly corrects the glitch, and life goes on. It is strangely unfamiliar story, not because it doesn’t happen—it happens with almost rote regularity—but because the last phase rarely garners the same amount of attention. You may remember the outcry over a previous incarnation of the iPhone, in which a poorly placed antenna caused weak signals and dropped calls when inadvertently hidden behind the user’s thumb. Or maybe you don’t—which is exactly the point.

The latest version of the story concerns Apple’s mapping app, newly added to the latest release of iOS. The app was built in order to replace the ubiquitous Google Maps, but so far its implementation leaves much to be desired. Despite some promising features, the app routinely displays unreliable results, and its images are often comically distorted or kludged together. The public reaction has been tempered by the usual range of dispositions: pious apologia from Apple die-hards at one end of the spectrum, and the gleeful schadenfreude of haters at the other. But Cupertino can afford to remain stoic since early adopters will almost certainly forget about the glitches in the long-run, while the remaining iPhone 5 users will remember the snafu mostly as something that happened to someone else. The solution will no doubt be costly, but Apple can afford to throw huge amounts of money at it, and few things motivate the company as well as bad press.

At his blog, Exploring Local, mapping consultant Mike Dobson has outlined the likely reasons for the botched launch. A more straightforward explanation, as pointed out by CNet‘s Charles Cooper, is that Apple knew the risks but was willing to take them in order to drop Google Maps from iOS. It’s probably a mistake to suppose that, in the months leading up to the launch, Apple still might have chosen between releasing its own app and delaying that release in favor of giving Google Maps another bite at cross-platform dominance. It’s as likely that they’d have chosen to release iOS 6 with no mapping function at all. Given that the market regards mapping and GPS as basic smartphones functions, that’s the same as supposing that Apple simply had no plan B. Their mapping app would come packaged with the new iPhone, ready or not.

Despite the app’s flaws, that’s likely a good thing. Google’s increasing dominance over the mapping market brought with it certain cultural dangers. Two years ago, John Gravois wrote in the pages of Washington Monthly on the part Google Maps had already begun to play in shaping global politics. “Thanks to the logic of its software and business interests,” he wrote, “Google has inadvertently waded into disputes from Israel to Cambodia to Iran. It is said that every map is a political statement. But Google, by trying to subvert that truth, may just be intensifying the politics even more.”

Gravois’ example concerns a sudden change in place names on the global version of Google Maps, which suddenly began representing the disputed region of Arunachal Pradesh as Chinese territory on the very day that Chinese and Indian diplomats met for talks meant to resolve the dispute. Google’s correction of the change—that is to say, their reiteration of the company’s fidelity to certain national commitments—was handled according to the same method Google uses in living up to their own “Don’t Be Evil” mantra: that is to say, algorithmically.

From the foreign policy perspective of most powerful nations, Google landed on the right side of that dispute. Yet Arunachal Pradesh continued to show up on Chinese versions of Google Maps as Zàngnán, technically South Tibet, which suggests what might have happened had Google ultimately decided that its fortunes were better served by placating China. With China’s economy undergoing an upswing relative to the financial crises of the U.S. and Europe, it’s feasible that playing to the Chinese market, even outside of China, could soon make good financial sense. The test of Google’s geopolitical “agnosticism,” as Gravois calls it, will come when they have to make similar decisions in spite of the money to be made from playing at one side’s expense, rather than for the money to be made by playing both sides from behind the safety of a firewall.

In the meantime, Indian positions hardened over the perception that China had allied with an extra-state player to decide the matter. It is precisely because of the ubiquity of Google Maps that so much trouble can arise over a cartographic slip like that. From Apple’s perspective, market share is justification enough for ousting Google’s app from iOS 6, but even if you’re not Apple or one of its customers, there’s reason to welcome Apple’s attempt to build a viable competitor. Would that we had more. Even if they were to align perfectly on the undisputed features of the world, their differing strategies with respect to geopolitical indeterminacy would soften Google’s position as a political force.

It may, of course, be cold comfort to many to see a company as big as Apple building that competitor, but it should come as no surprise. Online mapping systems are a costly enterprise, requiring not only coordination of huge numbers of data providers, both terrestrial and orbital, but also huge amounts of processing. That a company like Apple, normally known for the sophistication of its products, is having so much trouble properly launching a mapping app ought to demonstrate just how difficult it can be.

It’s no surprise that Google’s product is more seamless. It’s benefited, after all, from a 7 year head start. At this point, only a bona fide titan has much chance of catching up, and Apple’s status as the producer of the iPhone made it the likeliest contender. By packaging their app as part of iOS 6, they could guarantee an audience and open a chink in the armor of Google’s growing dominance over the market. And while waiting might have ensured a more seamless product, it also would have given Google another cycle to solidify their hold on the market.

There’s much to laugh about in the missteps they’ve made in their launch, but Apple’s entrance into the field is nothing to scoff at. Ultimately they are competing for the power to shape our view of the world. The more competitors we have to choose among, the less tied we are to the financial stakes of any one in particular.

is the founder and editor-in-chief of Culture Ramp.
— Please submit all corrections, responses and rebuttals as letters to the editor.