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Tuesday, 25 September 2012

Apple and the hard way to be a market leader

If you use an iPhone, chances are that you have heard the litany of complaints about Apple's poor mapping experience in comparison with Google Maps. Articles like this one in TUAW, a pro-Apple site, and numerous comments in various user forums indicate that the displeasure is widespread, not only in the tech community, but among Apple's bread and butter audience - the average user who swears by Apple, simply because everything works, simply and intuitively.

It should be pointed out that Google Maps, like most of Google products, is not perfect. In fact, Google has created many more 'beta' and 'alpha' products than Apple, Android itself being a perfect example. Yet you do not find people complaining as bitterly about Google or Google based hardware as they seem to do when Apple gets it wrong.

It is a great example of how user expectations are shaped by the company's brand image and perceived standard of user experience. We just do not expect Google to get it right the first time. We expect them to keep working and polishing the interface over time and we accept this with good nature. This is exactly in sync with Google's easy-going, helpful, 'let's keep trying to make this better' image.

Apple on the other hand, takes themselves, their perfectionism and the paramount importance of a superlative user experience, very, very seriously. It has created a strong brand image and a profitable brand. The downside is that when Apple gets anything - even the smallest thing - wrong, it generates a huge amount of outrage and negative publicity. Ironically, even Apple non-users feel impelled to be critical of the brand when it slips. There is enough evidence of this in the past - the scuffgate and iMaps furore surrounding the iPhone launch and the antennagate issue at the time of the iPhone 4 launch stand out prominently.  

None of this has seriously impacted the sales or the profitability of Apple as a company. The 5 million weekend sales of the iPhone 5 are testimony to this. I doubt whether the majority of people would quit using the iPhone just because of the deficient maps app, like the author I quoted at the beginning of this post. 

There is an easy and a hard way to be a market leader. Leadership through technology innovation and price point strategy is the easy way. Leadership through claiming the best user experience ever, is the hard way. Apple chose the hard way. It requires courage, and willingness to own up when you fall short. It is confrontationist by default even if you do not criticise competition directly - when you claim to be the best, you put everyone else (competition and competition users) on the defensive. They search for the weak chinks in your armour and enjoy publicising them.

The onus will be on Apple in the coming weeks to fix the issue. Will they release the Google Maps app for iOS 6? I am hoping that they do. It is an appropriate choice to maintain the stance of the best possible user experience. The definition of the term also includes offering a competitive choice if that enhances the user experience.