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Is Apple Losing Its Touch?

Apple released both the iPhone 5 and iOS 6 this week, but the iOS 6 release in particular had some uncharacteristic slip-ups for the giant from Cupertino.  It's still early on the morning of September 21st and there hasn't been enough time for people to discover any flaws in the iPhone 5 yet, but given the iOS 6 news since Wednesday, I bet people will be examining this phone a bit more closely than normal.

So what went wrong with the iOS 6 launch?  Well, thankfully nothing that was catastrophic -- I did not hear of any phones being bricked by the upgrade (although I did see some people complaining about having to delete much of their Photo Stream before upgrading).  But there were certainly a few bumps in the road.

First, users started flooding Twitter with messages about a Wifi bug that prevented many people from connecting to their home (or work) networks.  Turning on Wifi would in many cases result in Safari launching and taking users to a 404 page on Apple's website.  It turns out that a web page used by Apple to check for logins was down, and it was crashing the wifi of anyone who was not actually accessing a setup that required login.  (My main home wifi channel was affected and I was taken to the 404 page.  I also have "guest" access that requires a password much like using wifi in a hotel or coffee shop, and that worked without problem.)  It took Apple several hours to fix the problem, and by early evening everything was working smoothly.

Next came the flood of complaints about Maps.  Apple ditched Google's Maps app and launched their own mapping app to much fanfare, but when people started trying it out, many noticed missing towns, duplicate islands, missing bridges and dams, and a general lack of detail in many places that was available in Google's app.  To be fair, others said Maps offered *more* detail in certain areas, but those voices were easily drowned out by the large number of users who felt Maps was a downgrade.  Locations outside of the U.S. seemed to be affected the most.

Many city dwellers (and public transportation users) were also dismayed to find that clicking on the train icon did not take them to a list of nearby public transit routes and schedules, but instead took them to a listing of 3rd-party apps in the App Store.  If you're looking for a subway in NYC or a bus in Chicago, I guess you'll have to download different apps for both, because I didn't see one app that collected national data the way Google Maps does.  Personally I don't use this feature very often, but I have found it very helpful when traveling (a recent trip to Chicago was made a lot easier by having instant access to a current train schedule). I'll be interested to see where this goes long-term.  Will Apple update the app over time to include schedules like Google Maps, or will they continue to point us to the App Store? And will more apps become available that are more inclusive, quick to download, and easy to use -- and free? (For those who don't want to wait for Maps to get better, Google Maps is available in a mobile version via the Safari browser. Many people are now calling for Google to release a standalone app, so we'll see if they oblige or continue to use this as a selling point for Android phones.)

Did you notice the new icon for an app called Passbook?  This is a terrific idea that could be an easy way to keep track of coupons, loyalty cards, and boarding passes (and maybe facilitate payments at some point).  It was also announced with a lot of enthusiasm, with demonstrations showing how apps like Delta and Starbucks, among others, can work with Passbook to generally make your shopping and traveling life easier.  The reality on the afternoon of September 19th, however, was the Passbook doesn't seem to be ready for prime time.

Upon opening the app, users are greeted by a generic screen touting the promise of the app, with a link to the App Store at the bottom.  Sadly, upon clicking the link users were presented with an error message and unable to see the list of Passbook-ready apps in the store.  A convoluted workaround was soon making it across the internet (Set my device date to one year in the future?  Really?), but again this issue showed a tremendous lapse in the efforts of the (usually) detail-minded Apple crew.

Okay, so the workaround was weird, but it did work.  What then?  People who were able to get into the Passbook section of the App Store found... a short list of uninspiring apps that support it, and those required even more complicated routines just to get them to work.  And where were Starbucks and Delta, shown as examples of this wondrous app way back in June?  Not ready yet, apparently.

I suppose Apple can't be blamed for retailers not using the summer to update their apps for Passbook, but it does make me wonder why they let something ship with such little support.  It does follow a similar pattern used with the launch of Newsstand, but it still seems like a big oversight.  And the store error is just inexcusable.

Finally (so far), many iPad owners rejoiced at finally having a Clock app like the one that has been on iPhone for so long.  Many were even quick to compliment the fantastic design that reminded them of the clocks in Swiss Railway stations.  It turns out, however, that it is nearly *identical* to the Swiss design, and that iconic Swiss design is trademarked.  The Swiss are happy to talk about licensing the design to Apple, but this is simply an inexcusable mistake -- especially for a company that was recently involved in a high-profile case involving, among other things, trademark infringement (specifically, copying of designs).

Taken individually, none of these issues is going to threaten Apple's standing in the world of consumer electronics.  The Maps fiasco in particular stings, and the Clock design infringement is inexcusable, but Apple can and will get through them; Maps will improve over time, and the Swiss will get a big check.  The 404 error was most likely a poorly-timed technical glitch, but the other problems show a real lack of attention to detail, previously an Apple specialty.  They all show areas where someone took their eye off the ball.  Taken as a whole, these lapses in are troubling.

I've made it this far without asking if these problems could have happened with Steve Jobs at the helm.  It's certainly possible that some of the problems would have still made it through, while some of them might have been caught before release.  Even if Jobs wasn't leading the QA team personally, I suspect that his own attention to detail and pursuit of perfection (or at least his idea of it) made his company work that much harder to meet his expectations.  Tim Cook seems to be a fine CEO, but without the relentless drive of Jobs pushing everyone, can we expect more glitches like this from Apple going forward?  Is this the new normal?

If it is the new normal for Apple, chances are we'll still enjoy their products, and they will continue to enjoy much success in the market.  (The Disney Company is still around and going strong decades after the death of Walt, for instance.)  But I know I'll be watching the iPhone 5 launch today with particular interest.  We may be seeing a small opening for someone else to sneak in and pick up where Apple seems to be leaving off, and their next few product launches might be telling.

EDIT: I added a section about the lack of public transportation schedules in the new Maps app.

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