Does Apple have a service design problem?

People are suggesting that Apple's iOS Maps failure is a service issue - but could something deeper be at work?

It has not been a great week for Apple. After all the buzz and excitement around the iPhone 5 announcement the week before, the actual arrival of iOS 6 has brought Apple more negative publicity that they’ve had in years. And I can see why. Using the new iOS maps in my neighbourhood reveals a shop that closed over five years ago – not an encouraging sign for the quality of their dataset.

Dead shop

There’s no decent satellite mapping at all of where I live – and that’s hardly unique to my neck of the woods. Things are bad enough that there’s plenty of milage in a mocking Tumblr blog. This is a major step back from the iOS5 maps, powered by Google.

Erica Ogg at GigaOm has developed this issue into an argument that Apple can’t do services:

While some may be surprised by the seeming lack of quality control over Maps from a detail-oriented company like Apple, this kind of situation is something of a tradition when Apple rolls out a new service. Hardware? Apple’s mastered that. Software? Rivals have been scrambling to catch up for years.

You just can’t say the same thing about Apple’s forays into web services. Looking back, the debut of this Maps app is arguably the most significant iPhone-related gaffe in the last five years.

She cites other examples, like the very Beta nature of Siri when it was launched, and the debacle that was the launch of MobileMe. However, she’s missed the point, I think. Apple does make hardware failures – look back far enough, and you have the G4 cube, the first generation AppleTV and the antennagate on the iPhone 4. There were all significant issues. And Apple has been great at services offerings – look at the iTunes Store, the App Store, and even photo ordering from within iPhoto. Apple can do services.

But the last week has people worrying that it can’t. Even my esteemed colleague Martin posted as much yesterday:

Now add to this mix the disaster with the switch from Google Maps to Apple’s own maps. What we now get is a picture with gorgeous hardware, an increasingly outdated interface and a service experience that is even declining.

He’s right, in as much that the service actually offered is worse. Far worse. But it’s not the actual design of the service at fault – the app itself works well, and the innovations, like Flyover. What we actually have here is a dataset failure – and, in some ways, that was Siri’s problem, too. In both cases Apple has chosen to launch with a limited data set, and allow customer use to develop their offering. Sure, Apple has been buying and partnering with as many data providers as it can over the last few years. But it’s not been enough. However lovely the software layer over the top is, the fundamental dataset is weak. That dead shop in my neighbourhood? That comes from Apple’s data partner Yelp.

Apple doesn’t have a services problem: it has a data problem. It has built a great service offering on top of lousy data. That’s not a service issue – it’s a service design issue.

It seems that a modern tech company needs four pillars to build its reputation on:

  1. Hardware
  2. Software
  3. Services
  4. Data

Apple’s achilles heel right now is number 4. And while it remains weak in that, its aspirations to provide the very best services around its products will be undermined.