Last week, Tim Cook did something unexpected. He apologised for Apple Maps, the Cupertino company’s stab at a navigation app following its shunning of Google Maps.
An apology is pretty much unheard of from Apple, especially one followed by suggestions of which third party apps to use from rivals. So could this be the start of an altogether more likeable and approachable corporate ethos at Cupertino?
Tim Cook has taken a more relaxed approach to helming the company since he took over. Steve Jobs was about out and out warfare; he called Android a stolen product and threatened to go “thermonuclear” over it. Cook, conversely, wanted to deal with the issue in a non-combative way. “I’d highly prefer to settle versus battle,” he said when announcing quarterly profits back in April.
He said he’d “always hated litigation”, but added “we need people to invent their own stuff.”
Indeed, Apple didn’t let up in its savaging of Samsung in the courtroom. It recently won $1 billion from the Korean mobile maker, and is now seeking another $700 million. All bets are on it trying to ban as many Samsung devices it can as well, to really put the hurt on its arch rival.
So Apple hasn’t exactly gone all cuddles.
But Cook’s apology is a big step in a different direction. He acknowledged the new Apple Maps in iOS 6 wasn’t up to the company’s usual high standards, saying “we fell short on this commitment. We are extremely sorry for the frustration this has caused our customers and we are doing everything we can to make Maps better.”
He even went on to recommend rivals’ mapping apps. Rivals. Like Nokia. And Google. Google. That company Steve Jobs wanted to stamp into dust.
The next day, what should pop up in the App Store? A whole new subsection of mapping apps for your iPad. This was one serious climb down, make no mistake.
But it wasn’t just the reaction to the Maps farrago that signals Apple could be softening at the edges. How it deals with the press could also point to a less egotistical way of doing business. “We’re starting to do some things differently,” Phil Schiller, Apple’s senior vice president of worldwide marketing told prominent Apple blogger John Gruber back in February. The reason Gruber had been summoned by Apple? An update on OS X. But instead of a room full of journalists, Gruber was the only one in attendance.
“And instead of a room full of writers, journalists, and analysts, it was just me, Schiller, and two others from Apple,” Gruber wrote. “This is just like an Apple event, I keep thinking… This is an awful lot of effort and attention in order to brief what I’m guessing is a list of a dozen or two writers and journalists.”
“It’s Phil Schiller, spending an entire week on the East Coast, repeating this presentation over and over to a series of audiences of one. There was no less effort put into the preparation of this presentation than there would have been if it had been the WWDC keynote address.”
Compare this with how Apple did business previously, and it’s quite a contrast. Usually an Apple briefing goes something like this: you’re ushered into a room and spoken at for half an hour by people who are so rehearsed they sound like press releases. At its events, there’s no section at the end for questions, just a product showcase and some hands-on time with what’s new. So to go one-to-one in such a manner is quite a departure.
Perhaps Apple realises that while it’s history’s richest tech company, the rise of Samsung, Google and Android are a very real threat. And that while it may be top dog, that just makes it a bigger target for detractors. Microsoft was once the biggest in its field, after all. And look at what happened to once great titans like Sony, and how they crumpled in the face of more innovative competitors.
A more likeable Apple? Possibly. A less competitive business model? I wouldn’t bet on it.