Is the iPhone maps blunder Apple's canary in the coal mine?

Things are different in America - still. Despite all the togetherness of the internet and super-easy air travel, you can even today be surprised (for good or ill) at what's going across the Atlantic. This blog, borrowing its title from the legendary Alistair Cooke, aims to keep you in the picture about things you might not otherwise know.

With queues round the world to buy the new Apple iPhone5, the least likely headline of the weekend must be: Has Apple Peaked?

It comes atop an article by Joe Nocera in the New York Times. And it's all to do with the Apple maps fiasco. Many other writers report on the mapping shambles. Tom Scott parodies it in a brilliant video seen here. But Nocera's article has the most meaningful edge.

He asks, "If Steve Jobs were still alive, would the new map application on the iPhone 5 be such an unmitigated disaster? Interesting question, isn’t it?"

Nocera recalls that as Apple’s chief executive, Jobs was a perfectionist. He had no tolerance for corner-cutting or mediocre products.

"The last time Apple released a truly substandard product — MobileMe, in 2008 — Jobs gathered the team into an auditorium, berated them mercilessly and then got rid of the team leader in front of everybody, according to Walter Isaacson’s biography of Jobs."

In rolling out a new operating system for the iPhone 5,says Nocera, Apple replaced Google’s map application — the mapping gold standard — with its own, vastly inferior, application, which has infuriated its customers.

I myself found the mistakes laughable - and worldwide: Auckland train station in the middle of the harbour, is a good one. Tumblr has a lot of fun with the blunders.

Nocera says that with maps now such a critical feature of smartphones, the new Apple Maps app seems to be an inexplicable mistake.

"And maybe that’s all it is — a mistake, soon to be fixed. But it is just as likely to turn out to be the canary in the coal mine.

"Though Apple will remain a highly profitable company for years to come, I would be surprised if it ever gives us another product as transformative as the iPhone or the iPad.

"Part of the reason is obvious: Jobs isn’t there anymore. It is rare that a company is so completely an extension of one man’s brain as Apple was an extension of Jobs. While he was alive, that was a strength; now it’s a weakness. Apple’s current executive team is no doubt trying to maintain the same demanding, innovative culture, but it’s just not the same without the man himself looking over everybody’s shoulder. If the map glitch tells us anything, it is that."

Apple wants to force its customers to use its own products, even when they are not as good as those from rivals, says Nocera. "Once companies start acting that way, they become vulnerable to newer, nimbler competitors that are trying to create something new. Just ask BlackBerry, which once reigned supreme in the smartphone market but is now roadkill for Apple and Samsung.

"Jobs would never have allowed his minions to ship such an embarrassing application. But despite his genius, it is unlikely he could have kept Apple from eventually lapsing into the ordinary. It is the nature of capitalism that big companies become defensive, while newer rivals emerge with better, smarter ideas."

Nocera cites one Twitter message he saw, “Oh my god,” it read. “Apple maps is the worst ever. It is like using MapQuest on a BlackBerry.”

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