Sunday 18 March 2018

Technology: I'm sorry, you’ve been ‘Zucked’

2012 has been a tricky year that has taken some of the shine off the tech giants, writes Ronan Price

Mea culpa: Apple CEO Tim Cook apologised for the faults in Apple Maps. Photo: Getty Images
Mea culpa: Apple CEO Tim Cook apologised for the faults in Apple Maps. Photo: Getty Images

Blinded by the glare of media attention and carefully managed PR, it's easy to forget that tech giant Apple is fallible. Even the most valuable company in history – worth more than $500bn (€383bn) – can make a hames of a high-profile launch.

That's what happened in September when Apple unveiled the latest version of its iPhone software incorporating a fresh batch of online maps. Driven by an urge to decouple itself from deadly rival Google, Apple took a gamble that its own maps would match up.

They didn't. By Apple's high standards, or at least those of the late Steve Jobs, the result was nothing short of a PR catastrophe. Early evidence from Ireland, for instance, showed the data way off beam in many places, placing Dublin Zoo in Temple Bar (oh, the irony) and locating an airport in Rathfarnham.

New York Times reviewer David Pogue said: "Maps may be the most embarrassing, least usable piece of software Apple has ever unleashed."

An unusually humbled CEO Tim Cook eventually donned sackcloth and ashes: "At Apple, we strive to make world-class products that deliver the best experience possible to our customers.

"With the launch of our new Maps last week, we fell short on this commitment. We are extremely sorry for the frustration this has caused our customers."

He went on to suggest customers switch to rival products and ensured a few heads rolled for good measure.

The gaffe took a little off the shine of another blockbuster year for Apple, buoyed by the debut of the iPhone 5 and not one, not two, but three iPad launches.

Its coffers were boosted further by a patent win over Samsung in August, which deposited $1bn (€765m) in Apple's accounts after a US judge ruled the South Koreans had copied designs for the iPhone and iPad.

The decision in similar cases has gone the opposite way in some other countries (most notably South Korea), leading to a suspicion the alleged plagiarism comes down to a subjective judgment rather than outright thievery.

Apple makes so much money it probably loses $1bn down the back of the couch every month so the US decision was more of a bloody nose for Samsung and a shot across the bows to would-be copyists.

Of course, Apple wasn't the only tech bellwether to sail into stormy seas and it fared a lot better than Facebook, whose first public stock offering in May was a textbook example of dotcom hubris imploding all over again.

After years of private trading that included buy-ins by luminaries such as Bono, the Facebook IPO threatened to make multi-millionaires of many as its valuation reached more than $100bn (€76.5bn).

Alas, the gravy train hit the buffers within days as investors got a closer look at Facebook's financials, a few lawsuits were filed and the stock nosedived. CEO Mark Zuckerberg would admit only that he was disappointed with the market response.

The shares sank from their opening of $38 to less than $20 as owners hit the 'dislike' button and one wag coined a new word – "zucked" – to describe their state of affairs.

However, Facebook now trades at just under $30 after Zuckerberg rebuilt investors' faith that the company will be able to increase profits rapidly.

Microsoft is no stranger to pushing out major updates to Windows to general apathy. The latest version, Windows 8, seems to follow the pattern after dismal sales in its first few weeks since its release on October 26.

Maybe it's the completely unfamiliar desktop arrangement of giant 'tiles'. Maybe it's the fact that buried underneath lies a similar set-up to Windows 7 and consumers can't see a reason to upgrade.

Microsoft boss Steve Ballmer insisted Win8 was way ahead of its predecessor in terms of sales yet one top executive at major PC firm Asus claimed "demand for Windows 8 is not that good right now".

If it's any comfort, Microsoft plans to move to an annual release schedule, so Windows 9 should be announced any day now to, hopefully, draw a curtain over this unfortunate spectacle.

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