Ground Truth

I was always a smart kid. Did very well on tests all through grade school, didn’t have to do much work because the work I did do suggested to my teachers that there wasn’t an issue. Just a couple missing worksheets, he’ll do fine. When I got to middle school, I took the usual approach to things, which, for me, was always to just do them. That had worked brilliantly before, so I kept right on going.

I failed. And I don’t mean I got an A- and fretted about it like an overachiever. I fully failed math, test after test, almost ended up in remedial classes. Eventually I got it together, but years later I’ve accepted that among the things I have talent in, math is not one of them. Learning that about myself was an important step. Learning it about others is also important, but sometimes it has the distressing but necessary side effect of disillusionment.

Apple’s wretched Maps app is a good opportunity for the company to learn something similar about itself, and for the world to recast its opinion of them. We’re all grown-ups here. Why don’t we relate like grown-ups to the companies we love — and hate?

The core of the complaint with Apple’s maps has already been explained variously in dozens of other articles variously serious, quasi-serious, over-serious, hilarious, and specious. The essential problem, though, I think was best summed up here: ” Their problem is that they thought they did not have a problem.”

It’s always slightly questionable to anthropomorphize companies, as if human conditions like anger, ignorance, and inventiveness emerged collectively rather than from a very limited set of their very human parts. In this case I’ll allow it. The fact is that the leadership at Apple did not comprehend what they were undertaking. If they did, the result would have been different, because Apple is a company of immense resources that employs thousands of intelligent and motivated people.

As John Ruskin put it: “Failure is less frequently attributable to either insufficiency of means or impatience of labour, than to a confused understanding of a thing actually to be done.” No less true in this century than the last two.

Whether there was pressure from the Google deal isn’t really material (Apple would and should have been developing internal maps for years), nor is the fact that the Maps will improve and possibly even surpass the competition (it’s not impossible). Again, the explanations and speculations about the product are misguided, in my opinion. After all, when a smart kid suddenly starts to fail, do you find insight in the fact that they didn’t carry the two?

The quality of the Maps will be different in a month. No one cares about that, or should. My test scores increased, and Apple will fix the data. It’s the failure itself that matters, the abject, inexcusable, unexpected, and complete failure.

This golden child, this darling of the tech world, this industry titan, just came home with a dazed look and a big fat F on their report card. Not a “try harder” C like Apple TV. Not a “good enough” B like the iPhone 5. Not a flubbed assignment, like Ping. An F! But Apple doesn’t get Fs! Well, no one does. Until they do.

It takes something like this to humanize a company. We love them more, as we do with our friends and family, because we see not just how they succeed, but how they fail, in what way, how they handle it, and how they respond. Or we might love them less for the same reasons. It was endearing that the iPhone 4 had a flaw. Steve Jobs’ handling of that flaw was the opposite of endearing.

This knowledge of oneself makes people better, and it makes companies better. Some people capsulize it with the term “core competency,” but it’s not just a matter of being competent. I could learn to do math, and did (to a point). But my problem wasn’t that math wasn’t among my core competencies. It was that I went into it thinking that the problem wasn’t a problem. Apple made the same mistake – like a dumb smart kid. I like that, and not just in a schadenfreude way (though there’s a bit of that).

Failure is normal. Failure is the confrontation of a thing and its shortcomings. The failure that acquaints you with your own shortcomings is a bitter one but also incredibly important. With luck Apple is more familiar now with its own defects, having run a gauntlet most of its peers have weathered time and again — including Apple itself, in what must seem now like a previous life.

Addendum on intent

Note that all this woolgathering isn’t some roundabout way of excusing Apple’s atrocious Maps app. And it isn’t to rub their nose in it, either. As long as we’re anthropomorphizing, neither of those are things you would do for people you know, because the people you know are adults, and you can relate to them in a way that doesn’t require either extreme. The dogmatism displayed by some when it comes to big tech brands (on display, no doubt, in the comments below) reminds me of politics, where everything done by your team is justifiable and everything the other team does is unfathomable. It’s juvenile and it’s destructive. This is simply an explanation of the insight into Apple I felt as a direct result of this whole situation.