Could Steve Jobs have saved Apple from itself?

It didn’t take long after his death for the world to arrive at a consensus: Steve Jobs was no Saint. As chronicled in the New York Times, articles to that effect began to appear within 18 hours of his death:

Gawker: Steve Jobs Was Not God

Occupy Wall Street: Was Steve Jobs a Good Man, or an Evil Corporate CEO and Wall Street Shill?

Forbes: Steve Jobs Was a Jerk, You Shouldn’t Be

The Atlantic: In Praise of Bad Steve

You get the idea.

But with last week’s release of the iPhone 5, come a series of complaints – ranging from the replacement of Google with Apple maps, to supply shortagesAfrican-American emoji shortages, to the fact that they can (yes, can) connect to the internet – and an all-too-predictable wave of Jobstalgia:

Without Steve Jobs, Apple Is Without A Map

iPhone 5: Is Apple missing Steve Jobs?

Steve Jobs better career role model than Obama: Survey

Is Apple lost without Steve Jobs?

Even the New York Times couldn’t resist getting on it, with a piece by Joe Nocera, Has Apple Peaked?:

If Steve Jobs were still alive, would the new map application on the iPhone 5 be such an unmitigated disaster? Interesting question, isn’t it?

As Apple’s chief executive, Jobs was a perfectionist. He had no tolerance for corner-cutting or mediocre products. The last time Apple released a truly substandard product — MobileMe, in 2008 — Jobs gathered the team into an auditorium, berated them mercilessly and then got rid of the team leader in front of everybody…

In rolling out a new operating system for the iPhone 5, Apple replaced Google’s map application — the mapping gold standard — with its own, vastly inferior, application, which has infuriated its customers. With maps now such a critical feature of smartphones, it seems to be an inexplicable mistake.

And maybe that’s all it is — a mistake, soon to be fixed. But it is just as likely to turn out to be the canary in the coal mine. Though Apple will remain a highly profitable company for years to come, I would be surprised if it ever gives us another product as transformative as the iPhone or the iPad.

Part of the reason is obvious: Jobs isn’t there anymore.

The thesis is surely reasonable. Getting rid of Google maps seems to have backfired on Apple. But would a healthy and hearty Steve Jobs have been of any help?

Given Jobs’ dying wish – to destroy Google – Apple’s decision to drop that company’s products seems perfectly in line with his directive. And once you move away from Google Maps, there are no good answers. In a timely piece from The Atlantic, Alexis Madrigal describes Google’s virtually-insurmountable edge in the field of Geographic Information Systems:

This is a task of a nearly unimaginable scale. This is not something you can put together with a few dozen smart engineers.

I came away convinced that the geographic data Google has assembled is not likely to be matched by any other company. The secret to this success isn’t, as you might expect, Google’s facility with data, but rather its willingness to commit humans to combining and cleaning data about the physical world. Google’s map offerings build in the human intelligence on the front end, and that’s what allows its computers to tell you the best route from San Francisco to Boston.

Sure, Apple has 63,000 employees – but given Google’s massive headstart, along with the natural gravity inherent in owning the world’s most heavily-used (and therefore data-generating) GIS system, creating a product on par with Google maps will take solutions Steve Jobs would have been hard-pressed to genius up. Sure, Apple might have held off on disengaging from Google, but that would hardly qualify as progress.

My favorite part of the whole situation is the laughable premise that Apple has never experienced roll-out problems like this with Steve on the bridge. Guys, it’s the iPhone 5; has everyone already forgotten about the iPhone 4? I know it was two whole years ago, but let me jog your memory:

iPhone 4 Loses Reception When You Hold It By The Antenna Band?

The Best Semi-Solutions for iPhone 4 Reception Problems So Far

And, of course, the Steve Jobs solution:

Steve Jobs solves iPhone 4 reception problems: ‘don’t hold it that way’

That flaw in the phone’s design seems like a much more serious engineering obstacle than the basic software decision of which maps ought to be baked into iOS 6. If you downloaded the operating system in 15 minutes, Apple can push you an upgrade in the same amount of time.

So my advice to any disappointed iPhone 5 buyers out there: don’t lose too much sleep over it. And please, please stop dreaming about the second coming of Steve Jobs.


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