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In map fiasco, Apple vows to find the way

The Leonard P. Zakim Bunker Hill Bridge as rendered by Apple iOS 6's Maps program on Sept. 28.

The Leonard P. Zakim Bunker Hill Bridge as rendered by Apple iOS 6's Maps program on Sept. 28.

Apple Inc. issued an unusual public apology Friday for the new mapping software in its popular iPhone as users around the world have complained about inaccurate driving directions, scant detail, and bizarre images, such as the roads onto Boston’s Zakim Bridge that appear to be melting.

Apple chief executive Tim Cook published an open letter on the company’s website in which he conceded that the mapping software, included in Apple’s new iOS 6 operating system for its iPhone 5 and other devices, didn’t live up to the company’s standards.

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“We are extremely sorry for the frustration this has caused our customers,” wrote Cook, “and we are doing everything we can to make Maps better.”

The now-celebrated missteps with the mapping program have brought Apple an unusual amount of public ridicule, marring somewhat the adulation diehard fans bestowed on the tech giant for its newest version of the popular iPhone, released last week. Apple has also made the new operating system available as a free upgrade for older iPhones, as well as recent versions of the iPod Touch and iPad.

Apple replaced the highly popular mapping software from Google that was available on earlier iPhones and iPads with its in-house version. But the new program drew instant derision from users who said it did not have nearly the amount of detail as Google and was riddled with errors. Common problems include misplaced bridges or mismarked landmarks, such as well-known buildings or tourist destinations.

In New Orleans, for example, the Apple map shows the Huey P. Long Bridge in the midst of the city, instead of spanning the Mississippi River.

And in tech-centric Kendall Square in Cambridge, Apple Maps identifies a prominent MIT building as being the home of “Cambridge Search Inc.” and indicates the building is a gas station.

The new mapping service includes turn-by-turn navigation, but some users were plagued by inaccurate directions. “Unfortunately, it sent me about 11 miles out of my way in Holliston,” said Bob Bragdon, publisher of Framingham-based CSO magazine, who had used Apple Maps to find an industrial park there. “It said I was arriving at the place I was going and it was a Chinese restaurant.”

Another technology industry veteran, Robert Scoble, creator of the popular blog Scobleizer, said he too was misled by Apple’s maps.

“When it’s not accurate, it’s maddening,” said Scoble, who now uses several alternative mapping apps, as well as the navigation unit built into his car.

Michael Gartenberg, a technology analyst for Gartner Inc. in Teaneck, N.J., said some of the mapping mistakes are “downright embarrassing,” adding the fiasco has tarnished Apple’s reputation as a maker of elegant technology.

“Certainly it’s hurt them in the sense of public opinion,” Gartenberg said.

But he praised the company for issuing an apology and predicted the controversy would have little impact on the sales of Apple products. Indeed, even with widespread coverage of the mapping problems, Apple sold some 5 million iPhone 5 units over the last weekend.

“From a consumer perspective, this isn’t that big of a deal right now,” said Gartenberg, “and Apple’s action was to make sure that it doesn’t become that big of a deal.”

Several users told the Globe that despite their unhappiness with the mapping software, their fondness for the iPhone is as strong as ever.

“I would not say pass on an iPhone just because of this,” said Marc Hurwitz, an Arlington resident who owns the Boston’s Hidden Restaurants website. “It’s not that important.”

Apple has a history of asking for forgiveness. Shortly after the original iPhone went on sale in 2007, Apple slashed its price by $200, infuriating ­thousands who had paid full price.

The late Steve Jobs, Apple’s cofounder, published an open letter in which he offered a $100 store credit to placate the angry customers.

“We apologize for disappointing some of you, and we are doing our best to live up to your high expectations of Apple,” Jobs wrote at the time. In 2010, Jobs apologized for an antenna defect that caused poor call quality in the company’s then-new iPhone 4.

Apple has been trying to fix some of the glitches since the mapping program’s notorious debut.

But on Friday, Cook suggested iOS 6 users get directions from alternative mapping programs for now — including those from Google available over the Web.

Apple and Google are locked in a bitter fight for domination of the mobile software market that Apple pioneered with the iPhone.

The two had been close collaborators, but in 2008 Google introduced its own mobile operating system, Android , which has become the world’s most popular operating system for smartphones.

Apple has fought back with patent lawsuits against Android phone makers such as Samsung Corp, while also removing Google’s YouTube and mapping apps from its own devices.

Apple developed the new maps with help from TomTom NV, a Dutch maker of automotive navigation systems and digital maps with US headquarters in Concord. A spokeswoman for TomTom said the company would not comment.

Apple says it also uses mapping data from the OpenStreetMap Foundation a nonprofit group that creates global maps with help from volunteers around the world. The foundation’s map data is free to all users, and a number of companies have used it build their own maps.

Simon Poole, chairman of the OpenStreetMap board, said he believed Apple was using only a small portion of his organization’s data. “In a large number of areas, OSM data would be far superior” to the other sources Apple is using, Poole said.

And despite his own experiences, Scoble said Apple was right to develop its own mapping service, to avoid being dependent on Google.

“I totally understand why Apple chose to control its own destiny here,” Scoble said. “They’ll get better.”

Hiawatha Bray can be reached at h_bray@globe.com.
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