Scott Forstall and the Loss of Trust
Mark is a member of The Motley Fool Blog Network -- entries represent the personal opinion of the blogger and are not formally edited.
It wasn’t Maps
Although it may seem self-evident to the tech media that Forstall is out as head of iOS at Apple (NASDAQ: AAPL) because of Maps and Siri, the reality must be more complicated and more serious. Maps continues to be decried in the media as a “disaster,” and it has been a public relations messfor Apple, but it is not the “profoundly bad product” that Adam Lashinsky dubbed it in a recent article that claimed to go inside the Apple “shakeup.” The supposed failure of maps has become an oft repeated internet-urban myth in the tech media. I have to wonder whether or not writers like Lashinsky have actually tried Apple Maps.
In a recent review I wrote of the iPhone 5 on my personal site, we tested Maps in a variety of scenarios and were pleasantly surprised. We found the street level mapping to be perfectly accurate for the urban area (Los Angeles) and rural area (New Mexico) tests, and the driving directions to be as good or better than competing products from Google (NASDAQ: GOOG) and Fullpower Technologies, which makes MotionX mapping products for iOS. I have recommended MotionX for iOS users who need an alternative to Apple Maps, and MotionX made the top of the list of recommended mapping programs on the App Store.
The glaring problem with Apple Maps was in the aerial view (satellite view) data base. For rural New Mexico, it was wholly inadequate. However, this was fixed in a few short weeks by Apple’s inclusion of satellite imagery from Digital Globe (NYSE: DGI), a provider of satellite imagery for both Google and Microsoft and many other customers, including various agencies of the U.S. government. Digital Globe claims to have more than 2.8 billion square kilometers of the Earth in their mapping archives. Not using Digital Globe from the start appears to have been Apple’s main blunder with Maps.
The initial flaws of Apple Maps, although hardly profound, were worse than normal for newly released Apple software, and were therefore enough to ignite a feeding frenzy in the tech media, ever anxious to hold Apple to impossibly high standards. As for Siri, does anyone really expect Siri to answer any question put to it? It’s obviously a work in progress, and I never read complaints about it in the tech media until the Maps blow-up. Siri appears to have served simply as an excuse for the tech media to point the finger at Forstall, sensing that he was already wounded and vulnerable.
Public embarrassments such as Maps are not usually sufficient to bring about the downfall of executives like Forstall, for a number of reasons. The upper management of an organization such as Apple is a very exclusive club, and that club tends to be protective of its members, rushing to the defense of its own, especially when attacked by “outsiders”. When a member of management does require some disciplinary action, the action usually stops short of out-right dismissal for a number of pragmatic reasons.
The most important of these reasons is the loss of expertise, which is especially true in Forstall’s case. Forstall has led the iOS development effort from its inception. He had started working at NeXT after getting his Masters in Computer Science from Stanford and joined Apple when NeXT was acquired as part of Jobs’ strategy to use the NeXT OS as the basis for Mac OS X. Turning him loose in the world will not only be a loss for Apple but a huge gain for any potential competitor. Forstall’s continuing role as advisor to Tim Cook until some unspecified time next year, and his contractual obligations to protect Apple proprietary information will only provide temporary protection for Apple. These considerations, combined with the immediate expense of contract termination, are usually enough to discourage the firing of key executives.
The Unforgivable Sin
The reallocation of responsibility Apple has announced also points to an obvious disciplinary remedy for Forstall: his removal from heading Siri and Maps. Responsibility for these has now been given to Eddy Cue, who will unify all Internet based services such as iTunes and iCloud under his command. The fact that this was not sufficient points to a deeper problem. The clue to this problem lies in an observation I and other writers have made about the Maps fiasco: it could have been avoided simply by acknowledging from the outset that Maps was still a work in progress. Instead, Forstall oversold the capability of Maps (and Siri) through his flawless demos, which created expectations that couldn’t be met.
Based on subsequent events, I’ve concluded that it wasn’t merely the public’s expectations that were disappointed, but also the expectations of the upper management of Apple. The art of being an effective CEO of a company such as Apple is very much the art of understanding what’s going on inside the company without getting bogged down in details. Towards that end, CEOs are very dependent on the information presented to them by subordinates. Forstall didn’t just oversell Maps to the public, he oversold it internally as well. It also hurt Forstall’s position that he was no longer dealing with his long time mentor. Perhaps Jobs would have understood by virtue of his long experience with Forstall how to correct for Forstall’s zeal. Apparently Cook did not. Forstall would not have been allowed to give the public demonstrations that he did otherwise.
Whether Forstall understood the flaws of Maps may never be fully known. I suspect he did, but merely rationalized them as minor. This is not unusual for advocates of new products or technologies within large companies. Obtaining funding and management backing for such endeavors is a sales job in its own right, and excesses of enthusiasm are usually indulged. But at some point the moment of truth arrives when a decision has to be made to offer the new product or technology to the public. At that point, the key decision makers need to know exactly what they’re getting into. With Maps, I doubt that Tim Cook did. This would have been Forstall’s unforgivable sin.
The Path Forward
Despite the loss of Forstall, which may yet be reversed in some way, the announced reorganization points to a positive maturation of Apple. Under Jobs, the management organizational structure was very flat, reflecting Jobs penchant to run Apple like a small company. Forstall’s responsibilities were not given to a replacement but redistributed to Cook’s existing direct reports.
For instance, iOS was given to Craig Federighi, who will now oversee all OS development within Apple. User interface design responsibility, which is part and parcel to OS development, has been given to Jonathan Ive, a move I have serious reservations about; but we’ll see. Jonathan Ive has done wonderful things in the hardware design of Apple products, and OS X especially could use his design flair. I’m getting a little tired of matte aluminum finish windows. But user interface design is primarily a software engineering task, so I’m skeptical about Ive’s ability to perform in this area. As mentioned, Eddy Cue will take over Siri and Maps as part of his responsibility for all Apple Internet services.
The responsibilities of all three key Apple executives are now so broad that they will necessarily have to delegate more responsibility in turn for major organizational areas such as iOS or Maps. Apple’s management structure will therefore become more hierarchical, a much needed change for a company the size of Apple. Although some feel I’ve been harshly critical of Cook, in general I’ve applauded the changes he has made in Apple from the Jobs era, and this reorganization is one of them.
MarkHibben has a position in Apple. The Motley Fool owns shares of Apple and Google. Motley Fool newsletter services recommend Apple and Google. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.If you have questions about this post or the Fool’s blog network, click here for information.