iOS 6 Maps debacle exposes Apple’s Achilles’ Heel: services

You known something has gone terribly wrong when a major feature of your most anticipated software release of the year has a parody Tumblr blog and Twitter account in less than 24 hours.

If you’ve been on the internet in the last 24 hours, you know that Apple’s (s aapl) getting roasted over its new Maps app, which many customers tried out for the first time Wednesday when iOS 6 was released to the public. While the basic look and feel of the new Maps app Apple created to replace Google Maps is nice, there are some serious deficiencies: inaccurate location placement, mangled satellite imagery, lack of basic points of interest in major cities, and the confusing replacement of native transit directions with third-party routing apps, some of which are not yet available.

Meanwhile, the Guardian reports Google is already working on a Maps app to submit to the App Store. And Apple seems aware that people are unhappy. A company representative told AllThingsD on Thursday: “We launched this new map service knowing it is a major initiative and that we are just getting started with it. Maps is a cloud-based solution and the more people use it, the better it will get. We appreciate all of the customer feedback and are working hard to make the customer experience even better.”

While some may be surprised by the seeming lack of quality control over Maps from a detail-oriented company like Apple, this kind of situation is something of a tradition when Apple rolls out a new service. Hardware? Apple’s mastered that. Software? Rivals have been scrambling to catch up for years.

You just can’t say the same thing about Apple’s forays into web services. Looking back, the debut of this Maps app is arguably the most significant iPhone-related gaffe in the last five years.

Sure, “Antennagate” of 2010 caused a pretty good stir. But Apple (begrudgingly) called a press conference, apologized, gave out iPhone cases for free, and that was the end of the issue. Plus, it wasn’t necessarily a universal problem for users.

Siri launched in beta last October, and it felt like it. Mocking videos about Siri’s inability to understand questions popped up on YouTube. Apple employees were quoted anonymously saying Steve Jobs “would have lost his mind” over Siri. But the service’s deficiencies didn’t constitute a dealbreaker for people buying a new iPhone, and the service was clearly labeled as a beta: a rare move for Apple. The Ping music network was lame from the start when it launched in 2010, but it wasn’t necessary — no one had to be part of a music-based social network.

Up until now, you could have been on solid ground arguing that MobileMe was the biggest product launch disaster for Apple in the last five years. The transition from .Mac to MobileMe was a huge embarrassment for Apple in July 2008, one which resulted in people’s calendars, email and contacts stored in the service being completely inaccessible for days. Some customers were inexplicably overcharged for the service too. Jobs famously eviscerated the product team in a closed-door meeting that year, the details of which were later made public.

Apple managed to fix the service, eventually made it free, and then scrapped the whole thing in favor of iCloud last year. Even though iCloud eventually replaced MobileMe, it hasn’t left its problems behind — there have been several outages of the service in the past year.

Fixing something that wasn’t broken

But this Maps debacle is a way bigger deal. Mobile navigation is an integral part of the modern smartphone experience. If you use one, it’s likely your most-used application (or at least in the top three) up there with Mail and Camera. It’s been one of the best, most reliable features of the iPhone — until now.

It’s true that Apple isn’t solely responsible for the app: it’s getting its data from Waze and from TomTom. But, as Waze’s CEO put it very honestly on Thursday, TomTom’s location data isn’t nearly at the level of Google’s. It’s looking like Apple’s decision to go with that company is part of the problem.

Sure, there are alternatives to using the Maps app. You could also use the web-based Google Maps service in your mobile browser. But none are ideal.

Friday heralds the arrival of the iPhone 5, the device that is already the company’s fastest-selling yet. But instead of customers tweeting about plans to stand in line at an Apple Store, or when the FedEx delivery guy is supposed to show up, Apple is dealing with a rare problem with its iOS software: some people are wondering if they should upgrade to iOS 6 at all.