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How Apple Will Benefit From Its Miserable Maps Failure

By Zara Kessler
December 13, 2012 3:34 PM EST

We made it. It was a long, arduous journey, filled with wrong turns, hospitals that turned out to be supermarkets and time spent stranded in Australian national parks. Three months later, however, we've finally arrived at our destination: Google maps is back on the iPhone.

In his New York Times review of Google Inc.'s new free app, David Pogue describes Apple Inc.'s failed foray into navigation: "For a company that prides itself on flawless execution, it was quite a detour."

It was a worthwhile detour. We've learned some important lessons over these strenuous weeks.

First, it's not always best to have the newest gadget. Those who waited in long lines for the iPhone 5 scoffed at their Luddite friends who failed even to update to iOS 6. But vintage can be fashionable in technology, too.

Second, there is a downside to spontaneity. It's sometimes wise to think about where you want to go before you're stranded on a street corner, unable to get there because the little screen in your hands can't figure out what city you're in. An e-mail, a printout or -- dare I say it -- a paper map can come in handy.

Last, and most important, Apple is not perfect. The week after the Apple Maps launch, Chief Executive Officer Tim Cook issued a rare public apology, in which he suggested downloading alternative map apps from competitors (making a few friends in the process). The manager who supervised the maps project got the boot. Cook was still apologizing a few weeks ago when he told Bloomberg Businessweek's Josh Tyrangiel: "We set out to give the customer something to provide a better experience. And the truth is it didn’t live up to our expectations. We screwed up."

There's a concept in psychology called the "pratfall effect." Put simply, we like competent people more than incompetent people, but the people we like best are competent people who occasionally falter. The classic pratfall experiment shows how individuals find a competent person who spills coffee on himself more attractive than a competent person without slippery fingers.

So Apple Maps may enable Apple Inc. to benefit from the pratfall effect. Of course, iPhones are not people. But that's not to say Apple doesn't want us to think of them as such. Every curse we shouted at our bite-size screens for not knowing that Shakespeare's birthplace exists -- and Woolworth's no longer does - - may have made us just a little more likely to be friends with Siri.

(Zara Kessler is an assistant editor and producer for Bloomberg View. Follow her on Twitter.)

Read more breaking commentary from Bloomberg View at the Ticker.

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