New York • Apple CEO Tim Cook apologized Friday for the company's error-ridden new mobile mapping service and pledged to improve the application installed on tens of millions of smartphones. In an unusual mea culpa, he invited frustrated consumers to turn to the competition.
Cook said Apple "fell short" of its own expectations.
"Everything we do at Apple is aimed at making our products the best in the world. We know that you expect that from us, and we will keep working nonstop until Maps lives up" to the same standard, he said in a letter posted online.
Apple released an update to its iPhone and iPad operating system last week that replaced Google Maps with Apple's own map application. But users quickly complained that the new software offered fewer details, lacked public transit directions and misplaced landmarks, among other problems.
People have been flocking to social media to complain and make fun of the app's glitches, which include judging landscape features by their names. The hulking Madison Square Garden arena in New York, for instance, shows up as green park space because of the word "garden."
Until the software is improved, Cook recommended that people use competing map applications to get around a rare move for the world's most valuable company, which prides itself on producing industry-leading gadgets that easily surpass rivals.
Apple has made missteps in the past even under founder and CEO Steve Jobs, whose dogged perfectionism was legendary.
"I think they are clearing the air and, more importantly, clarifying why they had to do their own maps," said Tim Bajarin, a Creative Strategies analyst who's followed Apple for more than three decades.
He recalled an infamous problem with the iPhone 4's antenna that interfered with reception when people covered a certain spot with a bare hand. Jobs apologized, though he denied there was an antenna problem that needed fixing. Apple quickly recovered.
But Cook's remarks went further, saying the company was "extremely sorry" and promising to make swift changes. Contrast that with Jobs' statement from 2010, when he said the antenna issue had been "blown so out of proportion that it's incredible."
Still, Jobs also acknowledged that Apple was "stunned and upset and embarrassed." But he insisted the antenna issue was not widespread and only a small number of users complained to Apple's warranty service.
On Friday, Cook said the new version of the mapping app was designed to give users the features they've been asking for. It includes turn-by-turn directions, voice integration and a 3-D flyover feature.
Google's map application for the iPhone did not give turn-by-turn directions or voice-guided navigation, although its version for Android devices does.
Google, Bajarin said, wouldn't license the turn-by-turn feature to Apple because Google prefers to give devices running its own Android software an advantage over the iPhone and iPad. Maps and navigation are among the most-used features of smartphones.
Cook said Apple's maps will get better as more people use the app and provide feedback.
That's true for all digital maps. Google's system wasn't perfect when it launched, but it got better over the years as users pointed out mistakes and helped the company collect its vast trove of data.
"Ultimately, what (Apple) discovered early on is that Google had access to 100 million iOS users who helped them build the Google Maps database, Bajarin said. "At some point Apple had to put its foot down."
It came time, he explained, for Apple to own the users of its mapping service, not Google.
But for now, Cook actually recommends that users look at other options including Google maps.
"While we're improving Maps, you can try alternatives by downloading map apps from the App Store like Bing, MapQuest and Waze, or use Google or Nokia maps by going to their websites and creating an icon on your home screen to their web app," Cook wrote.
Could Apple have avoided the debacle? Bajarin thinks so, maybe by acknowledging that the map app was a work in progress. That's what the company did when it released Siri, its virtual assistant. Customers understood.
Apple released the iPhone 5 last week and on Monday said it sold more than 5 million of them in three days. Although the number is a record for any phone, it was fewer than analysts expected.
Shares of Apple Inc. slid $14.12, to $667.10, in Friday trading, amid a broader market decline.
Cook's letter online