Gatekeeping

There has been a bit of a Twitterstorm lately over an article (warning: Business Insider link), in which the executive managing editor of Insider Inc., who "has hired hundreds of people over 10 years", describes her "easy test to see whether a candidate really wants the job and is a 'good egg'": Did they send a thank-you email?

This test has rightly been decried as a ridiculous form of gatekeeping, adding an unstated requirement to the hiring process. Personally I would agree that sending a thank-you note is polite, and also offers the opportunity to chase next steps and confirm timelines. However, I would not rule out a candidate just because I didn’t receive such a note – and I have also received overly familiar notes which put me off those candidates.

The reason these unstated rules are so important is because of the homogenising effect that they tend to have. Only people who are already familiar with "how things are done" are going to be hired or have a career, perpetuating inequality.

This effect has been borne out in a study recently summarised in The Atlantic:

> The name that we gave to the culture there was "studied informality" —nobody wore suits and ties, nobody even wore standard business casual. People were wearing sneakers and all kinds of casual, fashionable clothes. There was a sort of "right" way to do it and a "wrong" way to do it: A number of people talked about this one man — who was black and from a working-class background — who just stood out. He worked there for a while and eventually left. He wore tracksuits, and the ways he chose to be casual and fashionable were not the ways that everybody else did.
>
> There were all kinds of things, like who puts their feet up on the table and when they do it, when they swear — things that don’t seem like what you might expect from a place full of high-prestige, powerful television producers. But that was in some ways, I think, more off-putting and harder to navigate for some of our working-class respondents than hearing "just wear a suit and tie every day" might have been. The rules weren't obvious, but everybody else seemed to know them.

I have seen this mechanism in action myself – in much more trivial circumstances, I hasten to add.

> One day I was in the office and unexpectedly had to attend a customer meeting at short notice. I was wearing a shirt and a jacket, but I had no tie and had on jeans and sneakers. I apologised to the customer, and there was no issue.
>
> On the other hand, it happened to me to visit a "cool" cloud company in my normal business warpaint, and was told in the lift to remove my tie as "otherwise they won't listen to you"…
> Let's not even get into the high-school sociological aspects of people wearing the wrong shoes. Distinctions between suits are subtle, but it's obvious when someone is wearing cheap sneakers versus branded ones.

Instead of unstated and unspoken implicit rules like these, it is much better to have clear and explicit ones, which everyone can easily conform to, such as wearing a suit and tie (or female equivalent – and yes, I know that is its own minefield):

> In fact, suits & ties are actually the ultimate nerd apparel. You have to put some effort into shopping, sure, and they tend to cost a bit more than a random vendor T-shirt and ancient combats, but the advantage is that you can thereafter completely forget about wondering what to wear. You can get dressed in the dark and be sure that the results will be perfectly presentable. If you want you can go to a little bit more effort and inject some personality into the process, but the great thing is that you don’t have to. By wearing a suit & tie, you lead people to pay attention to what you say and do, not to what you are wearing. And isn’t that the whole point?

Another unstated gatekeeping mechanism is "culture fit". This is all but explicitly saying "I only want to hire people from my social/class background, and will exclude candidates with a different background.

Here I do think there is some subtlety that is worth exploring. I attempted to respond to the tweet above, but expressed myself poorly (always a risk on Twitter) and did not communicate my point well.

First of all, there is a collision here between "is this person like me" and "would I want to spend time socially with this person". I feel that the sort of people who do this implicit gatekeeping would indeed only want to associate with people from the same background as them, and so this question becomes problematic in that context.

However, some of the reactions to the original tweet appeared to me to take the objection too far, stating that looking for social compatibility at work was ipso facto wrong. Having made several friends through work, I disagree with that view. In fact, I would go so far as to say that my work friendships are influenced in no small part by the fact that my friends are good at their job, and the factors that make them good professionals are also the factors that make them good friends: intelligent, trustworthy, honest, high EQ, and so on.

The correlation is of course not 1:1; I have known many successful and effective professionals who are not my friends. However, by excluding these factors entirely from the decision matrix, I see a particular failure mode, which the fallacy that only people with abrasive personalities are effective, and therefore all people with abrasive personalities are good hires because they will be effective. It is not surprising that those sorts of people do not make friends at work.

The particular weight placed upon these factors may vary depending on which role in an organisation is being looked at. Customer-facing positions, where it is important to establish and maintain a rapport, may place particular emphasis on high EQ, for instance.

Of course the opposite failure mode is the one where everybody looks the same, dresses the same, went to the same schools – and only hires people exactly like them. This is why explicit rules and failsafes in the process are important, to avoid "culture fit" becoming – or remaining, if we’re honest – a fig leaf used to cloak institutional racism and classism.

As ever, the devil is in the details.


Images by Kelly Sikkema and Hunters Race via Unsplash

Rainbow 🌈



I love this shot, with the sunset light finally peeking under the clouds after a whole day of rain, and catching that perfect rainbow.

The fact that the train I was waiting for, and more importantly the person I was there to meet, were right at the end of that rainbow, just makes it that much better!

First Impressions

Having now put the first 2000km on my Giulia, across city, motorway, and twisty Alpine road, here are some first impressions and comparisons with the late lamented Beast.

Quite apart from all the differences inherent in going from a lardy SUV to a lithe sports saloon that weighs about as much as one of my old Cayenne’s doors, there is also more than a decade of evolution separating the two cars, so there are all sorts of changes to take into account. Overall though I am just so happy with my choice; the thing looks just perfect, subtle but aggressive, a brawler in an impeccably tailored Italian suit. The gamble with the paint colour paid off, despite looking nothing like the picture in the online configurator! It shifts between grey and blue, with bronze accents in the sunlight, and looks far better than that description. I am trying to arrange a photo shoot, but it’s taking a while.

The Giulia also manages to pull off that trick that 911s have of feeling special even at parking speeds, and keeps it up all the way to the rev limiter – not that I have explored that too much yet, as I wanted to run the motor in somewhat gently. This is due in no small part to the mass of the engine being entirely behind the line of the front axle, contributing to that perfect weight distribution.

The lightness and sensitivity of the steering are a huge part of this "specialness", but it’s a feeling that is woven throughout the car, from the way the instruments are angled towards the driver, to the seats that offer a perfectly judged combination of comfort and firm bolsters holding you in place. The DNA modes also help, with a switch into Dynamic feeling like a shot of adrenaline straight into the driver’s veins, vision turning red at the edges in sync with the instruments.

I did miss the air suspension from the Beast on some of the broken cobbled surfaces in Milan, but apart from that I far prefer the Giulia’s sporty setup, which even in standard mode appears to have deep-seated religious objections to any roll in the body. In sport mode it adds a well-judged firmness without becoming crashy – in other words, it’s still comfortable on the straights, and then sends the car around corners absolutely flat.

Mostly my impressions from the test drive were confirmed in spades. It’s a taut, agile car; the engine is very willing even in automatic mode, but also rewards use of the paddles. A four-cylinder engine is inherently never going to sound as good as a V8, but the Beast was not especially vocal, while I suspect the Alfa team had a few meetings with the team that tunes the exhausts over at Abarth. It’s not nearly as bombastic as those little 500s, but the Giulia’s twin exhausts still manage to sound pretty fruity when you push on a bit.

One place where the Chrysler part of Fiat-Chrysler shows through is the very American-sounding beep which goes off if you change lanes without indicating. The lane departure warning can easily be turned on and off from a button on the end of one of the stalks, which is a very Italian touch that is convenient on a twisty mountain road where you're frequently crossing back and forth across the centre line.

There is also radar cruise control, which does a pretty decent job of keeping its distance from traffic. It could be better, as while the distance is adjustable, even the minimum distance is still quite far away, especially by the standards of Italian motorways. The system is also quite eager to drop a cog to accelerate back up to speed, which is not necessary at all. When I’m on the cruise control, by definition I’m in no hurry! Anyway, this feature is mostly helpful, but only with light traffic. In even moderate traffic, it’s too eager to back off, then surge back up to speed – not very relaxing.

The same radar sensor also drives a forward collision warning system, which, yes, I have already heard triggered. I was already braking, but it automatically activated the hazard lights when the warning fired, which could be useful when doing a full emergency stop.

The dashboard screen is gorgeous but not touch sensitive, which is initially disconcerting when trying to navigate CarPlay. After a month of use I think I actually prefer doing it through the clickwheel, as it’s much easier to get things done without taking my eyes off the road. The usual steering wheel buttons also help, with play/pause, cue, and volume buttons all present and correct. The other two ICE-related buttons are used to hang up on a call, and to trigger Siri, so I don’t really miss touching the screen at all.

On that note, it is so good to have physical controls in the cabin for functions like climate control. I don’t need to take my eyes off the wheel to make it cooler or warmer; there is a lovely tactile wheel that I can twist around a little or a lot, and know right away whether my action was registered. There’s also a physical control between the seats for the ICE, with volume, play/pause, forward/back, and screen off functions – very useful for the passenger, while the driver is probably best served using the steering wheel controls.

Bottom line, I absolutely love my Giulia. If you’re in the market for something similar, I highly recommend it. If you’re not up for the Veloce setup that I got (or for the full-beans Quadrifoglio monster!), you can get most of the same goodness on the Super, with the same two-litre motor in a milder 200bhp tune. Take a test drive, you won’t regret it!

Good Morning!



Lots going on around here, none of which makes suitable blog fodder – so instead, have a view of SFO and San Francisco Bay from my hotel room this week.

Micromobility At Macro Scale

Having used one of those electric scooters, I am now an expert on micromobility, and I have opinions.

Last week I was in Paris on business, which is always fun. This was a proper multimodal trip, encompassing the following forms of transportation:

  • Personal car to the airport
  • Aeroplane from Milan to Paris
  • Moto taxi from CDG to my first meeting
  • Uber to my next meeting
  • Lime-S shared dockless scooter to my hotel
  • Taxi to airport

The moto taxi is always a somewhat terrifying experience, but I’ve been using them for years. It’s basically the only way to get anywhere in Paris at rush hour in less than an hour. If you haven’t had the pleasure, the idea is that you ride on the back of a Honda Goldwing (or sometimes one of those large scooters), which is big enough for there to be plenty of space for a pillion passenger and for carry-on luggage. The rider kits you out with a reinforced jacket, a helmet (with disposable liner), and a waistcoat with airbags that is connected to the bike via a breakaway connection. If you are unlucky enough to come off the bike, airbags around the neck will inflate and (with any luck) prevent the worst-case scenario.

Perched up high on the back of a Goldwing is the best vantage point from which to appreciate that most of the gridlock is composed of cars with only a single occupant. This is obviously not ideal for anybody, which is why alternative forms of transportation are such a hot topic lately.

Later that day, all done with my meetings, I was going to take a Metro to my hotel – but there was some sort of delay on the line, and then I spotted a scooter just standing there… I already had the Lime app from using it in Berlin with the dockless electric-assist bicycles there, so why not?

Unfortunately that first scooter had a cut brake line – the Bay Area does not have a monopoly on scooter saboteurs! By this point I was committed, though, and the app showed me that there was another scooter just around the corner with a full charge.

This second scooter was undamaged and zipped along quite happily. In the centre of Paris 25 km/h is plenty fast enough to keep up with traffic, and most larger streets have bike lanes which are physically separated from the car traffic, so it’s a very fun experience. I was only travelling for a single overnight, so my rucksack was no problem.

Compare The Car

If I had had my car with me, I would first of all have had to pay through the nose for parking1, not to mention the environmental impact of start-stop driving (this is what is driving the plan to ban internal-combustion vehicles in Paris by 2030). On top of that, driving in a congested situation like the centre of Paris is actually no fun at all.

The problem with the car is that my mobility needs would have been over-served, so I would only have experienced the downsides. The calculus would admittedly have changed slightly if it had been raining, or if I had had more luggage than a single rucksack, but then the delay on the Metro might have seemed more acceptable.

Either way, a full-size car is overkill in most (European) cities. Already today, my car hardly ever turns a wheel for journeys of less than a dozen kilometres. I would not want to ride a scooter to the airport (at 25 km/h!), but for a quick trip around town, a scooter or a bicycle are very hard to beat – especially if they could easily be augmented with public transport.

One factor that will help with uptake of these alternative forms of transportation is an easier way to bundle different forms of transportation together into a single logical "trip". This sort of aggregation is already beginning to emerge in various places: in San Francisco, the Uber app will let you rent JUMP bikes, while in Milan, dockless electric scooters can be unlocked using the Telepass app, which also lets users pay for motorway tolls, parking, congestion charges, and so on.

But Those Scooters Are In The Way!

My SF friends object to the scooters because they get left all over the place, obstructing pavements both when they are parked and when idiots ride the scooters on those pavements ("sidewalks", whatever) instead of sticking to the road or bike path. This is absolutely a real problem, but it’s not intrinsic to the scooters. It’s a combination of user education and available infrastructure. The Lime app I used in Paris asked me to take a photograph when I parked the scooter to make sure that it was parked somewhere appropriate. There are also red boxes on the map where the scooters cannot be left for any reason; Lime will charge users for retrieval if scooters are left in these areas.

These app features will already help to ensure that the scooters are in nobody’s way at rest. In motion, Paris’ excellent network of bike lanes reduces the incentive to ride on pavements. Given the width of American streets, there is plenty of room to add bike lanes there too, and to include physical protections beyond just a coat of paint. If there’s room to do this in the centre of Paris, there is room in every single American city, no exceptions.

I thoroughly enjoyed my multimodal trip, and I look forward to many more in the future.


  1. Seriously, last time I parked a car in central Paris, it cost more to house the car than the hotel room to house its human occupants. Supply/demand, and so on, it does make sense, but it stung quite a bit at the time! 

Advertise With The End In Mind

Even though I no longer work directly in marketing, I’m still adjacent, and so I try to keep up to date with what is going on in the industry. One of the most common-sensical and readable voices is Bob Hoffman, perhaps better known as the Ad Contrarian. His latest post is entitled The Simple-Minded Guide To Marketing Communication, and it helpfully dissects the difference between brand advertising and direct-response advertising (emphasis mine):

[…] our industry's current obsession with precision targeted, one-to-one advertising is misguided. Precision targeting may be valuable for direct response. But history shows us that direct response strategies have a very low likelihood of producing major consumer facing brands. Building a big brand requires widespread attention. Precision targeted, one-to-one communication has a low likelihood of delivering widespread attention.

Now Bob is not just an armchair critic; he has quite the cursus honorum in the advertising industry, and so he speaks from experience.

In fact, events earlier this week bore out his central thesis. With the advent of GDPR, many US-based websites opted to cut off EMEA readers rather than attempt to comply with the law. This action helpfully made it clear who was doing shady things with their users’ data, thereby providing a valuable service to US readers, while rarely inconveniencing European readers very much.

The New York Times, with its strong international readership, was not willing to cut off overseas ad revenue. Instead, they went down a different route (emphasis still mine):

The publisher blocked all open-exchange ad buying on its European pages, followed swiftly by behavioral targeting. Instead, NYT International focused on contextual and geographical targeting for programmatic guaranteed and private marketplace deals and has not seen ad revenues drop as a result, according to Jean-Christophe Demarta, svp for global advertising at New York Times International.

Digiday has more details, but that quote has the salient facts: turning off invasive tracking had no negative results whatsoever.

This is of course because knowing someone is reading the NYT, and perhaps which section, is quite enough information to know whether they are an attractive target for a brand to advertise to. Nobody has ever deliberately clicked from serious geopolitical analysis to online impulse shopping. However, the awareness of a brand and its association with Serious Reporting will linger in readers’ minds for a long time.

The NYT sells its own ads, which is not really scalable for most outlets, but I hope other people are paying attention. Maybe there is room in the market for an advertising offering that does not force users to deal with cookies and surveillance and interstitial screens and page clutter and general creepiness and annoyance, while still delivering the goods for its clients?


🖼️ Photo by Kate Trysh on Unsplash

The User-Unfriendly Web

Why I love Reader mode in Safari – a tale in two screenshots.

Before:

I have to scroll down more than an entire screen to see even the first line of the text. This design is actively user-hostile.

After:

Much better! I still have the title and the sub-heading, but I can see the image and the first paragraph of the text. Result.

What is even better is configuring Safari to use Reader mode automatically on offending websites:

Just a pity I can’t do that on iOS; the setting is only available in the macOS version of Safari. Still, a guy can dream…

The Shape Of 2019

They said they need real-world examples, but I don’t want to be their real-world mistake

That quote comes from a NYT story about people attacking self-driving vehicles. I wrote about these sentiments before, after the incident which spurred these attacks:

It’s said that you shouldn’t buy any 1.0 product unless you are willing to tolerate significant imperfections. Would you ride in a car operated by software with significant imperfections?
Would you cross the street in front of one?
And shouldn’t you have the choice to make that call?

Cars are just the biggest manifestation of this experimentation that is visible in the real world. How often do we have to read about Facebook manipulating the content of users’ feeds – just to see what happens?

And what about this horrific case?

Meanwhile, my details were included in last year’s big Marriott hack, and now I find out that my passport details may have been included in the leaked information. Marriott’s helpful suggestion? A year’s free service – from Experian. Yes, that Experian, the one you know from one of the biggest hacks ever.

I don’t want to be any company’s real world mistake in 2019.


🖼️ Photo by chuttersnap on Unsplash

Those Apple Numbers

Apple’s terrible, bad, no good updated guidance (not actual results yet, note) was pretty much unavoidable – as were the reams of commentary on the subject. Nevertheless, I had some thoughts of my own to add to the torrent.

China Syndrome

Tim Cook cited slowing sales in China as the primary factor in his guidance:

While we anticipated some challenges in key emerging markets, we did not foresee the magnitude of the economic deceleration, particularly in Greater China. In fact, most of our revenue shortfall to our guidance, and over 100 percent of our year-over-year worldwide revenue decline, occurred in Greater China across iPhone, Mac and iPad.

China’s economy began to slow in the second half of 2018. The government-reported GDP growth during the September quarter was the second lowest in the last 25 years.

We believe the economic environment in China has been further impacted by rising trade tensions with the United States.

In other words, a combination of a slowdown in the Chinese domestic economy, and the US sanctions starting to bite. I am sure these are both factors; China is the only market with the size and depth to be able to offer the sorts of growth that Apple investors have become used to. Apple’s stock price has long been a lagging indicator, underpriced (in price/earnings ratio terms) by investors stuck in the late Nineties who still thought of Apple as a company that was perpetually circling the drain.

In contrast the stock is now arguably overpriced, as it is hard to imagine another product ever again offering growth rates comparable to the iPhone in its first decade. The Apple Watch, a perfectly respectable business in its own right and a product that completely dominates its sector, is widely decried as a failure because it cannot match the iPhone’s runaway success. The iPad, a smaller business than the Watch, is nevertheless the tablet, with everyone else an also-ran. However, both of these are rounding errors compared to the iPhone business.

Meanwhile, for a company whose products are famously "Designed by Apple in California", but "Assembled in China", any trade sanctions are sure to cause a number of headaches. The sanctions apply most obviously to finished products, but any extended trade war could also affect the supply of raw materials, IP transfer, or relationships with component vendors.

However, I do not think that the Chinese economy and sanctions represent the whole story here.

A Perfect Storm

As everyone concentrates on the impact of US sanctions and wider macro-economic trends, there is another factor whose unfortunate timing is compounding the bad news for Apple.

As a general rule, people don’t upgrade their phone every year. Even among my tech enthusiasts friends, most are on what is known as a "tick-tock" upgrade path, meaning that they change their phone every other year. One reason for this pattern (apart from the obvious one of budget) is that Apple’s hardware generations are not all equal. Historically, a new form factor is launched one year, and then in the following year it is refined and improved.

These "improvement" years used to be known as the "S" models, as in 3GS, 4S, 5S, and 6S. People who wanted new form factors would buy on the non-S year, while those who craved reliability and performance improvements would buy on the S year. So far so good – until the iPhone 6.

As an example, the iPhone 6 was the first to offer the option of a larger screen, in the form of the iPhone 6 Plus, long after most Android manufacturers had launched their own larger-screen models.1 The pent-up demand for a larger iPhone caused many users to upgrade out of cycle, pulling demand forward that would otherwise have hit during the 6S cycle.

The same thing happened with the iPhone X. As the first iPhone to do away with the home-button, relying instead on Face ID, and offering that gorgeous all-screen view, it again caused many users to upgrade early. I was one of them, trading in my perfectly functional year-old iPhone 7 Plus for an iPhone X instead of waiting another year. If it had not been for the iPhone X, I doubt I would have bothered to upgrade to an iPhone 8, which is not different enough from a 7 to justify the outlay.

Breaking The Pattern

In contrast to the visible differences between the iPhone 7 and iPhone X, the iPhone XS and XR offer little to tempt owners of the iPhone X to upgrade early. To compound that effect, the steep price increases of the new models may be actively dissuading users from upgrading, putting them onto a three-year cycle. In other words, we are seeing a trough in demand that is caused at least in part by a previous bulge around the launch of the iPhone X.2 The sheer desirability and newness of that phone may also have obscured the impacts of the price increase – but having made such large investments, users are that much more reluctant to spend even more on newer models.

This effect may be even greater in China, as Ben Thompson has written before:

That, though, is a long-term problem for Apple: what makes the iPhone franchise so valuable — and, I’d add, the fundamental factor that was missed by so many for so long — is that monopoly on iOS. For most of the world it is unimaginable for an iPhone user to upgrade to anything but another iPhone: there is too much of the user experience, too many of the apps, and, in some countries like the U.S., too many contacts on iMessage to even countenance another phone.

None of that lock-in exists in China: Apple may be a de facto monopolist for most of the world, but in China the company is simply another smartphone vendor, and being simply another smartphone vendor is a hazardous place to be. To be clear, it’s not all bad: in China Apple still trades on status and luxury; unlike the rest of the world, though, the company has to earn it with every release, and that’s a bar both difficult to clear in the abstract and, given the last two iPhones, difficult to clear in reality.

John Gruber made the same connection, and commented succinctly:

By Thompson’s logic the iPhone X should have done well in China, because it looked new, and the XS/XR would disappoint in China because they didn’t. And, well, here we are.

What Now?

I am hardly going to offer advice,3 either to Tim Cook or to Apple investors. Tim Cook sees numbers that nobody outside the company does, and has certainly already put plans in motion whose effects we will only see several quarters from now. An aircraft carrier4 the size of Apple does not turn on the spot. Meanwhile Apple investors, taken as a group, have never displayed any particularly deep understanding of the company’s business, and will no doubt continue to do their own thing.

As an Apple user, however, I am not particularly worried – yet. The moment of truth will come later this year, with the launch of the successor phones to the XS and XR. If these phones are sufficiently compelling – and come at a suitably accessible price point, at least for entry-level options – demand would presumably plateau back out, all macro-economic trends being equal.

If on the other hand Apple launches a successor to the XS that is not immediately and obviously different – as the iPhone 7 was not visibly different from the 6 and 6S – and continues its price increase trend, then there may be an issue with longer-term viability.

Apple will probably never again have another iPhone-type product, with such universal appeal and monstrous growth. Everything from now on is about getting iPhone users to upgrade their device regularly, purchase ancillary products (AirPods, Watch, HomePod, Apple TV), and consume Apple services (Music, plus the long-rumoured video subscription service).5 That is a different kind of business, and expectations should be set accordingly.


  1. I refuse to call them "phablets". 🤮 

  2. Attempts to increase desirability with new colours, as on the iPhone XR, and especially the Product Red models released out of phase with the main launch of their parent models, do not seem to have had a measurable impact – although it’s hard to tell without detailed sales data. 

  3. Although I still think that something the size of an iPhone SE, all screen in the iPhone X style, and priced somewhere significantly below the mainstream XS, would be a bigger hit and provide clearer differentiation at the top end of the range than the XR. Or might that be coming in September, when all the iPhone models revert to sharp edges, as we have seen on the new iPad Pro? 🤔 

  4. That’s an AirPower reference! Zing! 😢 

  5. Oh yes, and Mac users – but that platform plateaued a long time ago. I love the macOS as a user, but it’s not a growth market. iPad – still not sure that Apple knows what it wants to do with iPad. 

Benefits of Integration

One of the most powerful memes in tech is the Innovator’s Dilemma. Professor Clayton Christensen’s theory posits moves from integrated products to modularised ones, driven by waves of innovation at different levels. The world of tech swings regularly between these poles of integration and modularisation. Sometimes the whole industry moves at once, as in the ongoing move away from modular desktop computers and towards all-in-one laptops, tablets, and hybrids of the two, with modularisation moving to other levels of the stack. At other times competing models are in play at the same time, with little agreement as to which is better.

Apple is often cited as a counter-example, the archetypal integrated company that defies the conventional wisdom of modularisation exemplified by the infinite variety of the Android platform. One counter-counter-example that often comes up is Maps, and I would like to take a moment to explore (sorry – not sorry) this point.

From launch, Apple Maps was derided as not just a failure, but an actively wrong and misguided choice by Apple. It even gets brought up as the ultimate negative example, as in this M G Siegler piece about Instagram data: "The data makes Apple Maps look like a pristine globe of information". Google had mapping and navigational data that were objectively better, the thinking went, so Apple should simply continue to adopt this external module within their own platform, regardless of consequences.

There is a philosophical aspect to this debate, of course, which may have more currency today than it did at the time. As the famous adage goes, if you’re not paying, you’re the product. Certainly with Google Maps, gathering and analysing users’ personal data was very much a key goal of Google’s, both for the altruistic reason of improving mapping and routing data, and for the more irritating one of contributing to the ever more detailed profiles it keeps of all of us in order to pitch us en masse to advertisers.1

Apple had never been entirely comfortable with this situation, and exacted large payments from Google in return for its privileged position within iOS.2 With the launch of iOS 6, Apple deprecated the use of Google’s data as a source for the built-in Maps application.

Note that Google’s own Maps app was never banned from Apple’s iOS or from its accompanying App Store.3 The difference between the systemwide Apple Maps and Google Maps (or any other third-party mapping app, for that matter) was the integration with all other apps that needed mapping data. In much the same way that tapping on a link would open the built-in Safari web browser, tapping on an address would open the built-in Apple Maps app. Using a third-party web browser, mapping app, or chat/IM or email client, required explicit action by the user each and every time.

Apple’s Walled Garden… Orchard?

Some users objected on grounds of principle to the deep integration of first-party apps and the consequent exclusion of third-party ones. Windows desktop operating systems had trained users to install any number of third-party utilities and widgets, either as replacements for system components or to extend native functionality. iOS did not work this way.

Apple had always preferred an integrated approach, producing both its own hardware and its own operating system ever since the original Apple ][, and complementing that with suites of its own applications. In the 90s I had an Apple StyleWriter printer attached to my Macintosh LC, which I interacted with through an Apple monitor, keyboard, and mouse. Displayed on that monitor was a ClarisWorks document, which was of course owned by Apple as well. Sure, it was possible to run Microsoft Office, and even (for a while) Internet Explorer. In fact, in the doldrums of the early 2000s, after the demise of Cyberdog, Apple’s first attempt at a web browser, and before the rise of Safari with OS X, Microsoft’s was the best browser option on the Mac.

This moment of dependence on third parties had its benefits – keeping the company alive at a very difficult time, for instance – but robbed Apple of ultimate control. As owners increasingly expected to be able to personalise the behaviour of their Macs with custom extensions, those systems became increasingly unstable. The introduction of OS X addressed many of those issues by replacing the creaking foundations of classic Mac OS with the Darwin kernel, but still gave users quite a lot of control. When it came time to launch iOS, however, Apple’s pre-existing philosophical bent towards opinionated design combined with the very real limitations of the hardware of the day to produce a "walled garden" where only Apple’s apps would run. The original iPhone did not even have an App Store; instead, Apple envisioned that third-party functionality would be provided through web apps (never mind that EDGE connectivity was not really up to the job, even in 2006).

Play Nice In The Sandbox

Apple did eventually relent and allow third-party apps to run on iPhones, but always in a very controlled manner, with strict sandboxing preventing apps from interfering with each other. This separation also prevented apps from interacting with each other at all, to the point that copy&paste functionality only arrived on iOS with 3.0, released in 2009, and was heralded as a major innovation when it did.

Even then, Apple maintained strict control over core functionality, giving users no ability to replace the standard web browser, email client, to-do list, and more. The Maps app was also part of this list, but used third-party data from Google for its functionality. Tensions had been brewing over this arrangement for a couple of years already, with Google introducing turn-by-turn navigation on Android only, but they came to a head in 2012. What Apple did with iOS 6 was to replace the Google back-end to Apple Maps with its own home-grown data.

For Apple, the creation of its own mapping and routing data from scratch was a monumental undertaking, which unsurprisingly ran into some issues, especially in the early days. However, very soon I found the data to be perfectly usable in the real world, even where I live, very far from Silicon Valley, with all that entails.

That positive overall opinion does not mean that there were no annoyances. Apple Maps’ search function is very finicky, expecting names of streets and businesses to be entered exactly as written, and with an irritating tendency to provide a result, any result – even if it happens to be somewhere completely different, thousands of miles, several national borders, and sometimes even an ocean or two away. Surely some basic heuristic should be able to figure out that if I don’t specify that I want a far away result, I’m probably expecting one within a few tens of kilometres at most? This behaviour has improved over time, but is still present to a certain extent.

All apps have their foibles, and these days, the Big Three mapping services – Apple Maps, Google Maps, and Waze – are pretty close in their usability. Head-to-head comparisons reveal that Apple Maps gives the most accurate estimates of arrival times, while Waze over-promises the time savings from its shortcuts. As more and more people use Waze, those "shortcuts" are causing congestion on the suburban streets that drivers are being guided to use in place of the gridlocked highways.

So Do I Want Modular Or Integrated Maps?

Very few people make detailed comparisons of map data and navigation instructions. The main benefit people are looking for is usability. Can I tap on an address and get directions? If I connect my phone to my car, does it offer to give me directions to the next appointment in my calendar? Can I text my spouse with a detailed ETA based on actual traffic conditions?

In the modular world, such integration is harder to achieve, simply because each one of the different modules offers slightly different features, or different implementations of common features. Also, modules are constantly changing and evolving at different paces, or even disappearing entirely.

Google is the main advocate for the modular approach, and indeed often produces several competing apps and services for the very same functionality. Google Maps and Waze are increasingly overlapping with each other, for instance. Google Play Music and YouTube Music are equally hard to disentangle. And it seems that every other month brings either the launch of a new Google chat service, or the demise of one of the existing ones. In this situation, users are expected to swap modules around on a regular basis – and if the new module doesn’t offer the same functionality as the old one, or does so in a way that is different and breaks your workflow – well, tough!

For myself, I find the Apple approach preferable. When I invoke a voice assistant on my phone, I am happy to know that it’s Siri, not Alexa or Cortana or whatever Google’s assistant is called, and that my personal data are not being added to some advertising profile that is of no use to me – but that’s another rant for another day. Meanwhile, everything just works; iOS knows who my next calendar appointment is with, and that person's contact card has their office address – and so Maps can suggest a route to that address, as well as letting me easily tell my counterparts when I will arrive. Doing this with modular services is not impossible, but it takes more effort than the average person wants to deal with, while exposing them to a series of trade-offs, precisely because of the lack of separation between apps.

When it comes to maps, though, I have to add one last caveat: your mileage may vary (still not sorry).


🖼️ Photos by Capturing the human heart., Mike Enerio, and Alexander Popov on Unsplash


  1. Once again: no, Google does not "sell our data". What it does sell to advertisers is access to certain audiences, defined by their interests, demographics, etc. It is not in Google’s interest ever to sell the data themselves; those are Google’s crown jewels, and they make most of their money by renting access to the product – but never selling the actual data. 

  2. An arrangement that continues today, with Apple being handsomely compensated for keeping Google as the default search engine within iOS. 

  3. Until iOS 12 Apple Maps was the only mapping app allowed to use CarPlay, though.