In the days and weeks following the passing of Steve Jobs nearly a year ago, there was much speculation about how Apple would fare without its visionary-in-chief.
Sure, Tim Cook was a wizard at managing Apple's supply chain and complex web of partnerships, and Jony Ive is a masterful designer. But like any game of Jenga, remove one key piece and the whole structure collapses, regardless of its previous integrity.
Yes, the iPhone 5 is a wonderful phone, and Apple will sell a gazillion of them.
But it's not a peerless phone. And given Apple's recent iOS 6 issues, one has to wonder just how much Jobs's magical eye for detail and anticipating what we want before we knew we wanted it is missed.
The clue that Steve Jobs's presence at Apple's helm is missed isn't what's amiss with iPhone and iOS 6, but what's missing.
Let's Talk About The Maps For A Minute
First off, while Apple's Maps mistakes have been high-profile, they don't amount to much. While initially critical, Consumer Reports concludes Apple Maps isn't that far behind Google for getting you from Point A to Point B. To be clear, that's not to excuse the problems people have encountered with Maps. If you hate it, there are alternatives. If you want Google Maps back, there's a way.
Secondly, Google Maps isn't exactly infallible, either. Just checking out my neck of the woods on the northern tip of Manhattan Island I find Apple Maps, at this moment, far more accurate than Google, displaying several businesses no longer in business. Google Maps shows a building still standing that biurned down 10 months ago, which Apple shows as a vacant lot.
So, a pox on both their maps.
My biggest complaint about Apple Maps as a New Yorker is its unlabeled subway stations. Neither does a great job precisely locating entrances, but at least Google Maps told me which train lines the station indicated served.
I even kind of like the melted features in Apple Maps' 3D satellite view. The George Washington Bridge, seen above, looks like a hacksaw slicing across the Hudson River, which made me laugh.
Perhaps the least reported of Apple Maps deficiencies is getting directions after a Google search. When you located a place you wanted to go after searching on Google and you tapped on the map pin, you immediately got switched to the iOS Google Maps app, with your current location and your chosen destination already entered in the here-to-there fields. Now you have to enter the start and end points manually.
While many of Apple Maps' widely-reported deficiencies can be repaired, I don't see Apple building a link to Apple Maps from the Web-based Google search to re-establish this integrated Google-to-Google Maps app function.
The Maps flap ultimately means nothing, however. Apple will fix it just like it fixed antennagate. What Apple can't fix is the opportunity it just lost.
NFC: The Missing App
What Apple has been ridiculously good at over the last decade is defining and usurping nascent or even non-existent businesses — iPod and the MP3 player business, iTunes and the online music business, iPhone and the smartphone business, the App Store and the app business, iPad and the tablet business.
The NFC business is aching to be dominated. Financial institutions, banks and even the cell carriers are all set up. But no one has been able to define what NFC is or why we should want it.
NFC will be a mobile wallet, you say — Google is doing it. Sorry, mobile payments will not be NFC's prime usage. Anyone who has ever tried to use their phone to pay for something knows this. You have to find then boot the payment app, input a security code, then wave your phone over a payment terminal. And this is easier than whipping out and sliding a credit card how? The whole concept of smartphone-replacing-credit-card, if this is how the process remains, is absurd on its face.
NFC's greatest potential is to more easily pair gadgets with each other and transfer data. Touch Bluetooth headphones to a smartphone to instantly pair them. Tap a Bluetooth keyboard to a PC or TV to pair them. Tap a smartphone to a PC or TV to transfer photos or video. Tap an NFC phone to open hotel room doors, get through turnstiles, open safes — in a few years, the phrase "Did you tap that?" will take on a whole new context.
All the NFC folks I've spoken to in the last year were all praying for Apple to include NFC in the iPhone 5, knowing it would legitimize and energize the entire NFC effort.
Yes, Android phones such as the Samsung Galaxy S III do some of this tap-to-transfer. But Android lacks the hardware variety and penetration and desktop PC parallel, and its hardware vendors are too diverse, to own NFC.
Apple, with its OS, hardware and app ecosystems — plus the market influence intrinsic with being the most valuable and the most trusted tech brand in the world — would have transformed NFC into as yet another thing we didn't know we couldn't live without.
NFC's ephemeral market status is just the kind of opportunity Jobs would turn Borg for — resistance would have been futile as Apple absorbs and owns another industry.
But, alas, there was no Steve Jobs to recognize how deliciously vulnerable NFC is. A year from now, when Apple unveils its iPhone 6 or iPhone 5S or whatever it will be, it may be too late for the company to establish itself as the NFC pace-setter.
And the loss is as much ours as Apple's, and is, in the long term, far more lamentable than this minor Maps misstep.