Leadership optimize

What CIOs can learn from Apple's mapping gaffe

With the mapping snafu, Apple may have made a grave mistake is regarding its customers are a resource to be exploited, rather than paying end-users.

Usually when it's time to talk about Apple, we're regaled with tales of fabulous products, exceptional execution, and a well-honed strategy. Couple that with a hyperactive press following the company, and it seems that every move made by Cupertino's finest is either the stuff of legends, or a strategic error exceeding Napoleon's Waterloo. The recent brouhaha surrounding Apple's Maps application is no exception. If you haven't been following the torrid tale, in its most recent mobile operating system, iOS 6, Apple abandoned Google's mapping product for an in-house rendition. It was announced with the usual flair and assorted superlatives, but execution left something to be desired when compared to Google's mapping product. Streets were missing, parks were mislabeled as airfields, and the navigation component would suggest an occasional swim through a major river.

Challenging an incumbent product that's had nearly a decade to perfect its offering is no small task. The resources and risk required were relatively obvious, and perhaps from an "ivory tower" strategic perspective, reasonably sensible. For years we've been hearing about how location-centric advertising and customer data are the future, a seemingly logical conclusion. If you know where your customers live, shop, travel, and visit, you are obviously well-positioned to tailor advertising to them, therefore control of mapping means control of additional revenue.

Unforced error

Where Apple may have made a grave mistake is regarding its customers are a resource to be exploited, rather than paying end-user.s Switching a core component of a mobile device to an untried, new chunk of code looks great in terms of mining customer data, but looks far less exciting when those same customers are alienated and frustrated.

While it's unlikely Apple has committed an irrecoverable error, IT leaders with far fewer resources than the world's most valuable company frequently do the same, and can learn from Apple's misstep. The old bromide that "the customer is always right" is rarely true, but at the same time, customers should be regarded as a source of revenue and a valuable resource, rather than an inconvenience or entity that exists solely for exploitation.

The big question

For many in IT, that begs the question: "who is my customer?" We've traditionally talked about internal customers, who might be end-users ringing the help desk, or a business-line VP requesting a new project. In a purely shared-service style IT organization, this may be an appropriate perspective, but as IT becomes more deeply embedded in functional areas, IT's customer is shifting from internal personnel, to true, external customers who write the checks that keep your organization operating.

This is an easy concept to discuss and a seemingly obvious proposition, but on the question of mapping, Apple apparently made a strategic decision that its customer was not the person throwing their $299 on the counter at the Apple store, but advertisers and internal databases.

Even within the same industry, two companies with similar products might have different customers. Google has made no secret of the fact that most of its products are designed to sell advertising. While a product like gmail or the Android mobile OS has many user-friendly features, it is fundamentally designed to allow Google to sell ads. Apple has long claimed end-users as its customers, and pitched its products as having superior features for this market. When this message gets confused, as has occurred with Apple Maps, bad things can happen to good companies.

For CIOs as well, miscalculating who your customer is can have grave repercussions. If your customers are internal employees, alienating them through convoluted charge-back schemes, or draconian security policies is a recipe for failure. If your customers are of the external, cash-in-hand variety, jumping after every budgeted and technically-exciting IT project could create distractions that cause you to lose sight of true revenue opportunities.

Just as Apple has quickly weathered past errors, it will likely move on from its mapping woes. The average IT leader however, might not get another chance.

About

Patrick Gray works for a global Fortune 500 consulting and IT services company, and is the author of Breakthrough IT: Supercharging Organizational Value through Technology, as well as the companion e-book The Breakthrough CIO's Companion. Patrick has...

10 comments
pk de cville
pk de cville

"Where Apple may have made a grave mistake is regarding its customers are a resource to be exploited, rather than paying end-users." Your grave mistake is you don't know Apple and you don't know Google's history well. If you did, you'd have known Google's refusal to implement its turn-by-turn function in iOS as it exists in Android led directly to Apple needing to control its own mapping destiny and not leave it in the hands of a powerful competitive threat, Regarding taking care of its customers, Apple has and will take care of them. Maps is not as bad today as ballyhooed. I expect Maps to me much improved within a couple of months. (And as far as the 'exploited' goes, Apple's invited them to try competitive apps, even Google's; Doesn't seem like exploitation to me.)

Trentski
Trentski

People buy them because they think they are cool, how can anyone stand that itunes crap. Someone mentioned they would pay more for a macbook pro earlier, people only buy macs because they think its different and cool, but isn't, they want to make life hard for IT support, these things aren't user friendly and make you run through hoops to do the most basic of tasks

dlovep
dlovep

Apple without Steve, it's not the first time, also not the first time to make big mistake.... to offer actual mean FORCE their customer to use a half-working product compare to a close to complete product, not only anger to spread but felt like you are buying or using a DOWNGRADED product instead of update. In a polite way to say, Update does not always mean up-to-date in Apple's believes.

ptaegel
ptaegel

"Who's really going to gripe too loudly over a Mapping app?" Was probably the last comment made before replacing Google maps with a slightly inferior product. And it's that last clause that's the crux of the whole thing, isn't it? An inferior product. Part of consumer trust is the belief that a company will always replace products and software updates with superior products. If that contract gets broken, even in the most minute ways, it calls everything else into question. The fact that Tim Cook would appear not to understand that throws Apple's future releases into question. A Macbook Pro costs three times what I'd pay for a comparable PC, but it's a premium I gladly pay given that I trust Apple products and service guarantees to be exceptional in every way. But the slightest doubt would quickly cause me--has caused me--to re-assess my Apple fetish. All because of the philosophical implications of the Map switcheroo.

DAS01
DAS01

I think the article also raises the question of who, exactly, the customer is. I think this is an important consideration, since you cannot please all of the people all the time.

fhrivers
fhrivers

Who are we kidding?! Most of the people who own iPhones can barely use a smartphone. Where else are they going to go? So what, the maps don't work.

Vinster1
Vinster1

Apple and all its brethren would do well to remember this simple fact. Even when we're wrong, customers are always right. If not, we'll take our trade somewhere else. In this case, Apple itself has legitimized the competition -- Android (running on Samsung hardware in particular) -- by tacitly admitting that they would rather compete in the courts than in the marketplace. A lot of very frustrated Apple customers are seriously checking out our friends across the aisle and liking what we see. Even if we're not jumping ship this week, we're holding off on "upgrading" to iOS 6 and waiting to see how long it takes Apple to get it right. Combined with the iOS-ification of Mountain Lion and increasingly restrictive I/O options on their laptops, Apple is looking more and more like "the Man" and less and less like the scrappy little upstart that offered us freedom from tyranny.

spam filter
spam filter

...is wildly oversimplifying a complex situation that involved development costs, data availability, and contractual obligations.

spam filter
spam filter

but you're not the customer. Like all publicly traded companies, Apple's only true customers are their investors. Just like every other major corporation today, the customer is the stockholder, and the product is profits. Everything else is just part of the process of generating "shareholder value."