The Apple Maps hullabaloo, megatrends and your business-tech strategy

The ongoing outpouring of derision, frustration and fun-poking at Apple’s new Maps app – touted as a key feature of the quite-possibly-described-as-magical iOS 6 – warranted another story on the BBC website today. As I was writing this it appears that Google can return over 68m results for the query "Apple Maps errors". The Huffington Post in the UK highlighted errors including the ‘rebirth’ of store chains long since shuttered in UK high streets; the town of Shakespeare’s birth missing; a city farm labelled as an airfield; and so on.

Quite a mess.

Exploring Local has a great post that details how and why Apple has ended up in this situation (as well as offering some advice on how things can be fixed).

Where did Shakepeare’s birthplace go?

One of the things that was quite quickly seized on was the number of sources that Apple decided to draw on for its Maps (here’s a list of the sources that contribute); but as Exploring Local says:

"Perhaps the most egregious error is that Apple’s team relied on quality control by algorithm and not a process partially vetted by informed human analysis. You cannot read about the errors in Apple Maps without realizing that these maps were being visually examined and used for the first time by Apple’s customers and not by Apple’s QC teams. If Apple thought that the results were going to be any different than they are, I would be surprised."

This is a particularly interesting state of affairs, because Apple has become the exemplar that killed the argument that so many people put forward through the last decade: that open ecosystems could naturally win in the consumer services and products world. Apple flew in the face of ‘received wisdom’, making a virtue of integration to deliver seamless experiences that ‘just worked’, at the expense of openness. Hardware, software, content, service all knitted together so the usage experience is effortless. That’s what we’ve come to expect; and conversely (and a little deliciously) Google – which, in its Android business, pursues an open ecosystem model – has consistently delivered something that ‘just works’ in mapping.

That’s perhaps a bit of a digression.

To get back to the point: Apple itself has been in the vanguard of firms driving up people’s expectations of seamless user experiences. Today, partly because of Apple, the direction of travel in business across multiple industries points towards the necessity of delivering great customer experiences – and customer experiences want to be seamless.

But at the same time, globalisation – and the resulting corporate drive to specialisation through outsourcing and partnering – means that increasingly, value flows want to be distributed. Tim Cook’s legacy to date – Apple’s own complicated global chain of hardware partners, contract manufacturers and other suppliers, which has so strikingly inflated Apple’s profits – is an exemplar of this trend, too. In the creation of Apple Maps the company followed this path again, but failed to pay enough attention to the information integration and co-ordination challenge that lay underfoot.

These two megatrends – value flow distribution and customer experience integration – are obviously pulling in opposite directions. Saying that resolving the resulting tension is not easy, is a massive understatement.

Which brings me to the last part of my headline. Perhaps the most strategically important role for IT-enabled business systems in the rest of this decade will be the way that they can help co-ordinate information, work and value across increasingly distributed chains of teams, partners and suppliers, and increasingly remote and mobile workforces. Yes, the underpinning for such systems has to be high-quality data and middleware that can deliver strong digital foundations; but these ‘systems of co-ordination‘ cannot be just technology systems – they have to be built to augment the expertise and experience of people. They also can’t be hard-wired, they can’t be closed, and they have to be able to augment that expertise and experience by themselves being built with the customer experience front-of-mind.

How do we build these systems? That’s a topic for another blog (or perhaps a whole series). One thing’s for sure: a methodology or mindset that focuses primarily on improving process efficiency is not the right place to start.

I’d love to know what you think.. please comment!