Should Apple have launched Maps as beta to avoid this whole mess?

Tim Cook took to the internet this morning to apologize for the pseudo-fiasco that is iOS 6 Maps. In particular, he apologized for not being forthcoming during the product’s launch: Maps is not yet a finished product, nor should it be featured as a singular reason to update from iOS 5 to 6. In fact, some users are choosing not to upgrade just to avoid the whole mess.

Could this have all been avoided if Apple had launched Maps as a beta? Unlike Siri, which is not an essential part of the operating system, mapping and directions is a feature all smartphone users now take for granted. The earliest days of Android boasted of Google’s advanced mapping app; Nokia has always espoused the superiority of its NAVTEQ-powered mapping data, even in the days of Symbian supremacy. Apple has a huge cavity to fill with its glut of accurate mapping information, and is even going so far as to recommend alternatives to satisfy its own users’ doubts.

But Apple has had no issue in the past launching products without essential features. We endured for two years no copy-and-paste, and three years without multitasking. We forget now that iOS lacked a fully-formed notification system until 2011. The App Store that we take for granted, with over 700,000 to choose from, didn’t exist until the iPhone 3G; in the beginning the iPhone was mainly a phone. Did they do the right thing by releasing Maps in its unfinished state to shake off the last vestiges of Google and suffer the undesirable task of, once again, starting from behind?

When Apple launches iOS 7, it’s likely that Maps will be once again front and centre, showcasing not only a couple new features, but demonstrably improved accuracy and expanded support for 3D Flyover. There may even be native public transportation directions. And Apple will announce it like that was always the plan, and people will promptly forget that there was ever a deficiency.

Remember Antennagate? How Steve Jobs held a press conference to apologize for the poor antenna performance in the iPhone 4, offering all buyers free bumper cases? It happened shortly after the phone’s launch in June 2010, and when the Verizon iPhone 4 was released the following January, and the 4S that following October, an improved antenna design was barely mentioned. Why bring attention to the fact that there was once a problem; this time it just worked.

So, if Apple had launched iOS 6 Maps as a beta, and included links to alternatives like Waze, Bing Maps, Navigon and others from the very beginning, with the understanding that they’re going to need likely a whole product cycle to sort out the kinks, would people have been upset?

Here’s been my experience using iOS 6 Maps since Beta 1. Almost every location I’ve searched for, mainly in the Greater Toronto Area and New York City, has come back immediately and accurately. Turn-by-turn directions have been, literally, perfect. There are a number of things I miss compared to Android’s excellent Google Maps app: true traffic overlays; bike directions; Labs features; detailed satellite views for outside the downtown core; public transit directions. In other words, I admit to “putting up with” many of iOS 6 Maps’ early half-baked features.

Surely Apple must have known how incomplete its most important new iOS 6 feature was. The pushback was almost immediate. This Tumblr (from which the lead image was taken) is hilarious. There’s little the company does that isn’t deliberate, somehow pre-planned. Every product seems to fulfil some promise made three or four generations earlier; every addition to the software a step towards some distant idealistic speck. That’s why the iPhone 5 seems so iterative, and why iOS 6 Maps is such a disappointment. Rarely does Apple do anything, on purpose, to set itself back.

So here we have an example of a rare misstep from a company famous for moving forward, with or without the industry’s approval. Eventually we’ll find out where they’re going, both figuratively and with its Maps application. Many Android owners have likely been smiling smugly over the last week or so; both Google’s software department and its hardware partners have made such massive improvements in the last year that the two operating systems stand neck-and-neck in terms of features and performance.

Google’s never been afraid to release beta software; perhaps Apple needs to take a step back and look at this strategy a little more closely.

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