Where Possible, Please Make a Legal U-Turn

by Adam on October 4, 2012

For those of you that don’t know, the subject line for this post is derived from the fact that when you miss a turn using your Garmin navigation device, it asks you to make a legal U-turn. I chuckle at that direction step, both because in most cases U-turns are illegal, and also just because of the idea that the Garmin would know enough to specify that it must be “legal.”

But the deeper reason for the subject line has to do with maps and navigation in general, so the tie-in is even more relevant. By now, I’m sure many of you have read about, heard of, or in some way witnessed Tim Cook’s (Apple’s CEO) most-public apology for the gaffe that is Apple Maps. It’s a momentous occasion given Apple’s preference to not apologize for anything (even when Steve Jobs offered consolation for the iPhone 4 reception issues in the form of new iPhone cases, one couldn’t hear an utterance of “I’m/we’re sorry” in any form during his announcement). So, in short, Apple really messed up, a fact that I experienced first-hand when I almost got lost driving to the airport in Boston because the phone couldn’t correctly figure out where I was starting from.

Truth be told, the maps aren’t that bad, and for the most part function the way one would hope a map would in getting you from A to B. But this isn’t about maps, is it? No, no it isn’t.

This is about the fact that Apple had a perfectly good mapping app from Google that actually was what I would consider “best in class” for this kind of functionality. But in the interest of competitive advantage, Apple ditched Google and started with a clean slate building their own mapping software (or perhaps more accurately, Google ditched Apple and started with a clean slate building their own mobile smartphone OS). In short, Apple devoted resources of time, money and engineering expertise to a problem that had already been solved by someone else. Can you start to see where I’m going with this?

Rather than technology companies focusing on the one thing they do well (whatever that happens to be), they instead feel they need to do everything well. Not just well, but better than all their competitors. As such, Apple and Google both have OS’s, and mapping software, among other things. Google and Facebook both have social networks (well, Facebook has a social network, Google has a network that is waiting to be socialized). Amazon and B&N both have tablets and content streaming services for video, along with Netflix and Hulu that are both doing what they are doing quite well.

Why is it that the biggest companies of our time are spending their energy trying to over-innovate, rather than directing their resources to problems that actually need to be solved? I don’t need yet another video streaming service, or another mapping app, or any other software or service that’s already been invented, vetted, and perfected.

I suppose my point is, if the internet has broken down the barriers to innovation and creative expression, why are some of the best minds in these industries playing the “me too” game when it comes to rolling out new products and services? I have a few guesses at the answer, some of which are quite obvious in a business sense, but I can’t help but be left wanting something more from companies that were models of seismic shifts in thinking around technology not all that long ago.

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