The most asked question about Apple's mapping debacle is the hardest one to answer.
FORTUNE — Over and over the past few days people want to ask me the identical question: Would Apple’s Maps snafu have happened if Steve Jobs were alive?
I respond that I’ll give them the easy answer first — no — but that I’ve got to give them the longer answer too. Because with Apple AAPL , nothing is as straightforward as you might think. The real analysis is more nuanced than the obvious speculation that Steve Jobs would have realized Apple’s maps weren’t up to snuff and held them back from public launch.
First, an observation: Apple users always have been a rambunctious bunch. Back in the day, the Mac faithful were always complaining about something: some bug, some feature that didn’t work as well as they’d like, and so on. They complained because they were passionate about the Mac in a way the majority of PC users never would have been. They loved their Mac, so they nitpicked about its shortcomings. And Apple typically listened, fixing the inadequacy in the next go-round, or the one after that.
What’s different is that, relatively speaking, there weren’t very many Mac faithful and the rest of the world didn’t much care one way or the other. They were a few millions souls, and Apple was a modestly successful company with low-single-digit market share in one market, personal computers.
That’s all changed today. A hundred million users have downloaded iOS 6, Apple’s latest mobile operating system, the one with the maps that put the Washington Monument in the wrong place. In other words, the stakes have changed. We’re all Apple faithful now, and not just iPhone users. It’s the rare sentient adult — or child — who doesn’t own an iPod, iPad or iPhone. Mac notebooks achieved 27% U.S. market share last quarter, Apple recently reported. So now the debate is more charged: More users, more complainers, orders of magnitude of more importance when something goes wrong. And in this case, there’s no dispute that something went horribly wrong, or Apple CEO Tim Cook wouldn’t have apologized for it.
But would Steve Jobs have allowed this to happen? Well, there were plenty of similar screw-ups on his watch. It’s now famous how he reamed the MobileMe team for its goof in launching a not-ready-for-prime-time service. Less commented on is that Jobs himself had every opportunity to stop MobileMe before its launch. Furthermore, Jobs didn’t really get upset until the criticism began in earnest from high-profile product reviewers. In at least that instance, Jobs seemed to care more about Apple’s image than he did about its (possibly sub-optimal) product.
There were other botched efforts. Antennagate over the iPhone 4 is a good example, though Jobs hilariously blamed Apple users for not using their phone correctly rather than apologizing as Cook did. (Some have criticized Cook for showing weakness. That’s nonsense. Good for him for owning up to a mistake.)
The list goes on: Ping, the failed iTunes music-sharing service, happened while Jobs was around. So did early iPhone pricing controversies, the Power Mac G4 Cube, and insufficiently scratch-resistant displays on the iPod Nano.
As I wrote in my book
, however, for more than a decade Apple’s relatively minor failures paled in comparison to its stunning successes. As well, Apple, partly through powerful, focused marketing, partly through the raw charisma of Steve Jobs, masterfully convinced the media and consumers not to focus on the slip-ups and instead to marvel at the achievements. Pay no attention to what’s happening behind the screen, says the Wizard of Oz!
All that is changing the Apple. The wizard is gone. The size and complexity of the company and the scrutiny from a massively bigger user base are nothing like what they were when Steve Jobs sprung the iTunes Music Store on a delighted public and a stunned music industry. Competitors and partners are scrutinizing Apple far more carefully today than ever before too. We’re essentially beginning to catch on to their tricks, and that can’t be easy for a group of magicians operating under a cloak of stealth.
Some context is important. Do botched maps constitute the beginning of the apocalypse for Apple? Maybe, maybe not. We don’t know. It’s way too early to say. Meanwhile, the company sells millions more iPhones than ever before and continues generating cash at unseen rates. If Apple is finished, it’s a pretty robust way to be done.
In review, it’s impossible and perhaps even foolish to speculate on what someone who isn’t around anymore would have done. But there’s still one niggling thought about the current crop running Apple. It was obvious to anyone who was watching that Apple’s maps weren’t going to be good. Developers knew this since June, when Apple released its tool kit for them to build applications for iOS 6. (We discussed it at Fortune Brainstorm Tech in Aspen in late July). As Scott Forstall, the executive in charge of iOS, said on Sept. 12, Apple built its maps from the “ground up,” and people in the mapping dodge will tell you, mapping the world is a massive undertaking. Even mighty Google GOOG took a good five years to catch up to AOL’s AOL then-dominant Mapquest service.
So the uncomfortable question is this: If Apple knew its maps weren’t going to be very good, why did it release them? A scarier question: Was Apple unaware its maps, a product it knew very well its customers use every day, had so many deficiencies? To be unaware of product flaws before a public launch speaks to an unfocused and arrogant organization. Because Apple is so secretive, it lacks the feedback mechanism of companies that are more willing to share their products on a pre-launch basis with trusted partners and users. To understand the answers to these questions would give you a real sense of where Apple is today, almost one year after the death of Steve Jobs.
I called Apple to ask these questions. Apple had no comment. Some things haven’t changed.