It’s hard for a company that’s improved a pilloried product to announce to the world, “Hey, we stink less than we used to.” So, Apple, AT&T and Microsoft, I’m here to do it for you.
With relatively little fanfare, the three tech giants have significantly improved offerings that, in their earlier forms, earned scathing criticism and damaged reputations: AT&T’s voice service, Apple Maps and Windows 8.
The best thing that ever happened to AT&T Mobility was also the worst: the four years it held exclusive U.S. rights to Apple’s iPhone.
From a business standpoint, it was undoubtedly a winner, bringing millions of customers. From a user standpoint, it was a disaster.
AT&T’s network was overwhelmed by the bandwidth-munching hordes of iPhone users, giving it a well-deserved reputation for uncompleted and dropped calls and making it the butt of late- night TV humor.
AT&T “literally got crushed by the iPhone, and public perception was even worse,” says Bill Moore, president and chief executive officer of RootMetrics, a Bellevue, Washington- based firm that uses crowd-sourced data to help measure wireless carriers’ performance.
Over the last several years, AT&T has poured tens of billions of dollars into improving its network. Meanwhile, the 2011 end of its exclusive deal gave iPhone users a choice of carriers. Verizon Wireless, Sprint and most recently T-Mobile US now offer the iPhone to their customers.
In recent months, I began noticing that the number of dropped and uncompleted calls in the San Francisco Bay Area was diminishing. Even that long-time dead spot on the waterfront embarrassingly close to AT&T Park, home of baseball’s San Francisco Giants, finally had service.
The improvement isn’t an illusion, says Moore, nor is it limited to just a couple of high-visibility markets like San Francisco and New York. According to RootMetrics data, the number of dropped calls on the AT&T network fell by more than half in the first six months of 2013 from a year earlier.
By most quality measures, AT&T still remains well behind Verizon. Of 125 markets surveyed by RootMetrics, Verizon is either top-rated for voice service or shares the top spot in 68 markets, to 42 for AT&T.
Still, you can’t deny the progress. And if you don’t believe me, just drive down to AT&T Park.
Here’s more good news: You can now trust Apple Maps to get you there. Last September, when I reviewed the app introduced with the iPhone 5, the area around the ballpark was one of those where Apple’s mapping service became confused.
At least the park showed up on the map. Immediately after launching the app, Apple was flooded by complaints about missing landmarks, sparse and misplaced points of interest and puzzling suggested routes to intended destinations.
The result: A humiliating public apology from Chief Executive Officer Tim Cook and an unexpected opportunity for Google. Apple’s arch-rival plunged into the breach with a terrific app, which it just updated with a bunch of new features for both Apple users and phones and tablets running Google’s own Android operating system.
Since the initial firestorm, the company has addressed Apple Maps’ most glaring issues. There are now many more points of interest. Three-dimensional flyover views have been added for lots of cities, including Honolulu, Glasgow and Paris. Whole countries have been made over, notably Japan.
Most of the changes have been made with little fanfare. Apple executives caution they aren’t hanging any “Mission Accomplished” banners just yet. Cook’s most recent comment, at a conference in May, was that Maps was “greatly improved, but we’re not there yet.”
That’s about right. Google Maps, with its multi-year head start, is still far better for things like public transit and traffic information. But Apple Maps is making headway. It always was beautiful and easy to use. Now it actually works.
In Microsoft’s case, many critics point to Windows 8 as a major reason why PC shipments are plummeting — down 10.9 percent in the second quarter from a year earlier, according to the Gartner Group.
Whether that’s fair, Windows 8’s attempt to be all things to all users has proven to be a problem. Its colorful, tiled Start screen is supposed to bring Windows into the era of tablets and touch screens — but makes little sense for existing owners or buyers of non-touch PCs.
Microsoft is preparing to release an update this fall, Windows 8.1, that begins to remedy some of the problems. For one thing, it allows users to bypass the Start screen and boot directly into the desktop, a step-saver for people who still mostly use traditional Windows programs.
It also resurrects the traditional Start button — sort of. The button is now back, though instead of opening a menu of programs and documents, it throws you back to the Start screen. A right-click summons a list of shortcuts to various housekeeping functions like network connections and power options.
I’ll have a fuller look at Windows 8.1 once it’s released in final form, probably this fall. In the meantime, Microsoft — like Apple and AT&T — deserves some credit for acknowledging user pain points, and doing something about them.