iPhone 5 Maps Gaffe Energizes Apple's Smartphone Rivals

By now, many people considering a new smartphone know that the new maps service in Apple's iPhone 5 - and iOS 6 - is more likely to get them lost than maps in competing phones. Rather than continue offering Google Maps, Apple opted for an inferior homegrown service, believing customers would wait for it to improve. In such a highly competitive market, that's a high-risk strategy that has given rivals a huge opening.

Dropping Google

Apple chose to drop its dependency on Google - and customers have to deal with the fallout. Complaints about Apple Maps include missing cities, mislabeled landmarks and faulty directions. While at a San Francisco cafe over the weekend, I spotted its owner hunched over an iPhone 4S, which he recently upgraded to iOS 6. I asked him what he thought of the new operating system, and his immediate comment was "Maps is a joke."

Apple's response to critics is to ask for patience. "We launched this new map service knowing that it is a major initiative and we are just getting started with it," company spokeswoman Trudy Muller told AllThingsD. "We are continuously improving it." In other words, be content using a service worse than the one we had before, trusting that someday it will be better.

Rivals Attack

That misstep is the opening rivals have waited for. In its Conversations blog, Nokia took advantage of the failings of Apple Maps to show the superiority of its service, which will be in the Windows Phone 8-based Lumia 920 set for release this year.

Samsung has also joined the Apple-bashing party with TV ads attacking its rival as playing catch up. Key iPhone 5 features like a larger display and support for LTE high-speed networks are already available in the Galaxy S3, which also sports the superior Google Maps.

Features that the Lumia and Galaxy have that are not in the iPhone include near-field communications (NFC) for and wireless battery charging. But those don't matter much, because neither are mainstream and they're unlikely to be missed by the majority of consumers. Maps is different. That's a feature everyone uses and cares about. In delivering an inferior mapping service, Apple has given people a reason to look more closely at competitors' products. Once they do that, people may begin to see through the Apple marketing machine.

Who Needs The iPhone?

People like myself who use multiple Apple products are the biggest winners in owning an iPhone. The integration with my MacBook Pro and iPad is key to why I stick with Apple. In addition, with the three-year tech support contract I purchased, I know Apple will provide good service when I occasionally run into problems. As a writer on continuous deadlines, time spent trying to figure out technical glitches costs me money, and Apple gets my equipment up and running quickly.

But I'm likely an exception. Most people would find it much easier to switch from one smartphone vendor to another, and for them, Apple needs a product that is as good or better than the competition. On that basis, the iPhone 5's mapping app is a big red flag.

Apple has had trouble with core features before. When it launched the original iPhone in 2007, one of the biggest complaints was it didn't work that well as a phone. However, the company was spared the brunt of the criticism, which was mostly directed at partner AT&T.

No Scapegoats

This time around, there are no handy scapegoats. Apple worked with two dozen partners on maps. TomTom is a primary supplier of the mapping data, and it has already made it clear it won't be Apple's whipping boy.

"For over 20 years TomTom has provided high quality and accurate map data," the company said in a statement emailed to ReadWriteWeb. The company went on to imply that the problem was with the app, not the data. "Each of these [device] manufacturers applies TomTom’s map data and other content to create their own unique application, which defines the user experience."

Losing Market Share

Apple has been losing market share to smartphones running Google's Android operating system for years. In the second quarter, the iPhone accounted for 17% of the market, while Android accounted for 68%, according to IDC.

Overall iPhone sales continue to grow, of course, and the iPhone remains insanely profitable for Apple. But to maintain its lucrative position in the long run, Apple's next generation will have to introduce something truly unique and not just ape the near-field communications and other features already in some Android smartphones.

In the meantime, it can't compromise on core features customers consider the baseline: solid voice communications, faster Web access, texting and accurate mapping. Apple has taken a step back with one of them - and that may prove to be a serious mistake.