Apple Victimized by the Abilene Paradox

| Particle Debris

The Abilene Paradox is a groupthink phenomena in which a collection of people decide on a course of action that is counter to the preferences, even an explicit decision, by any single member of the group. In other words, the group makes a decision not in the best interest of any individual and is not preferred by any individual. It happens more often than we might think.

This may have happened with Apple and the rollout of its new maps app. Afterwards, when the impact of the decision becomes clear, everyone involved claims that the group decision was a bad idea and they resisted it. Yet, as a whole, the group forged ahead anyway.

This phenomenon is well understood in accident investigations in which a team, a flight crew, a ship’s crew or a construction crew for example, suffers a catastrophic accident or failure. Could Apple have suffered this phenomena?

One could certainly claim that the rollout of Apple’s maps app in iOS 6 was catastrophic. Some developers gave Apple plenty of feedback, perhaps enough reason to delay the rollout in iOS 6. I am willing to bet that some Apple engineers told Scott Forstall that it wasn’t ready, but the considered response was that it was ready enough. Perhaps competitive pressure and schedules ruled, and we now know how that turned out. Here’s some background from the developers themselves: “Developers: We warned Apple about iOS maps quality.

The Abilene Paradox book explains this important groupthink concept and opportunity for massive failure, experienced over and over by companies and by governments. It’s something to watch out for in the future.

Tech News Debris

This week’s collection of technical news debris is on the esoteric side. We range from medicine to the Do Not Track kerfuffle to a long but informative explanation of Google and Microsoft’s privacy policy. (Of course, a privacy policy is a misnomer these days, and the browser setting Do Not Track is under attack, Big Time.)

We start with “Redefining Medicine With Apps and iPads.” The article is inspiring, but also makes one think about how we always want to see medical judgment guided by an smartphone or tablet, not dictated by it.

There are beautiful, fun-to-read articles and there are ugly articles that are gems. This one of those ugly but oh-so rewarding articles about how privacy policies are impacting us but also how, to some extent, irrelevant Microsoft has become. If you’re in a relaxed, intellectual mood (as I know you always are), follow this one to the end. Danny Sullivan is one of our best, most informed writers. “Microsoft To Make Same Privacy Change Google Was Attacked For; No One Seems To Care.

Steve Wozniak is always fun to listen to. In this audio interview with Talk Central, he talks about, amongst other things, Apple’s apparent arrogance. “TalkCentral: Ep 69 – ‘Steve Wozniak interview’.

We tend to forget about how times have changed when it comes to teaching computer science. Perhaps the idea of teaching computers by learning how to program is outmoded. Perhaps professors don’t want to be bothered by coding projects, preferring instead to tach theory. The result can be young, frustrated students who drop out, write a great iOS or Android app, and start a business.

In decades past, one could learn numerical analysis, algorithms, solid state physics, hardware architecture (binary representation, Big/Little Endian) and then start writing Fortran on a university computer or BASIC on an Apple II and take it from there. Today, the art of programming is so complex, even on a Mac, it’s hard to use that as a learning basis. (Buckling down with Python is good.) So just how does one go about designing a complete computer science curriculum that ends up also providing real-world skills? These are important questions. Not all answers are in this article, but it’s a great place to start. “Math Nerds vs. Code Monkeys: Should Computer Science Classes Be More Practical?”

Recent reports on the iPhone 5 and the the potential “purple haze” has made me wonder if the effect is due to the sapphire lens protector. The gist of the articles has been that the iPhone 5 suffers from the effect but the iPhone 4S not so much. Reports are all over the map, depending on how the picture is taken.

Consumer Reports has now weighed in and says, “The Apple iPhone 5, which our Ratings reveal is a standout camera, is no more prone to purple hazing on photos shot into a bright light source than its predecessor or than several Android phones with fine cameras, according to special Consumer Reports tests.”

The lesson here is most certainly a simple one. Smartphones are fine for casual photos, but if you’re going to take some serious photos, there’s no substitute for a digital SLR camera from, say, Canon or Nikon.

Nikon D7000, Image Credit: Nikon

Tim Berners-Lee, the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) and the major browser developers are teaming up to launch Web Platform Docs. The goal is to have a single, standardized source for client-side development and design.

Even as the browser developers seem to want to work together, under the leadership of Mr. Berners-Lee, advertisers are being driven batty by this new Do Not Track concept. As we know, the Do Not Track option is ON by default in Microsoft’s IE10. So vehement is the industry objection to this user preference, protecting privacy, that “The Do Not Track standard has crossed into crazy territory.

Both these articles will help you understand how powerful the forces are that have changed the landscape of what the modern browser presents to us as, well, mere browsing. But what goes on under the hood is amazing. In essence, the advertising industry wants the W3C working group to provide an exemption to Do Not Track to include advertising. As a result, when you turn Do Not Track ON, nothing fundamentally changes. When that sinks in, it’ll be another CTTN moment.

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All this concern about privacy standards makes me want to use anonymizers, throw away virtual systems, and proxies more and more. The sad part is that 99.99999% of users don’t give a damn about it, and they won’t no matter how much SPAM they get, how often their ID is stolen, or how much they get ripped off. As long as they can catch the latest YouTube, post on Facebook, and visit LOLCats they don’t give a…. er…. are fat and happy.

When this thing blew up I wondered if Apple had just deployed the app a year early. They had another year in the contract with Google. Why not let it ripen in the lab until it’s done. I’m thinking your idea of it being an example of the Abilene Paradox is not far from the mark.

Computer Science isn’t the only place that needs to be revamped. I know of several successful 30 year olds that went to college for a year or so and then, once they got what they wanted out of it, dropped out and are now doing VERY well. One owns her own business and the other just bought a house in Vancouver (If you’re familiar with the market up here you’ll know how amazing that is.) Perhaps we should rethink a lot of these curricula. Rather than thinking of people as a failure if they don’t complete their degree, we should see what they actually studied and go with that.  Perhaps we should stop viewing people who go back for a class when they are older as an oddity. Jumping in and out of higher education to get what you need at the moment should be the norm. So yes, we should have a practical basic CS program that would give useful hands on skills and lay the groundwork if someone wanted to either go out on their own or continue toward a degree where the theory would be taught. This is true of a lot of fields.



John, I look forward to your column every Friday, and this is a standout. I’d never heard of the Abilene Paradox before; however, in the context of iOS Maps, the whole “disaster”—especially with developers weighing in to TPTB—reminds me of two far more serious disasters: Challenger and Columbia.

In each case, lower-level engineers expressed their concerns to TPTB at NASA, and in each case, their concerns were dismissed. I have to wonder if, alone, those high-level decision-makers had the same concerns as the lower-level engineers, but went ahead with launch (Challenger) and re-entry (Columbia) due to real or perceived peer pressure from their fellow same-level colleagues. I’ve studied Challenger extensively, and have never heard the Abilene Paradox mentioned in connection to it (nor to Columbia), but given your background I’d be curious as to know if you think it could have had a hand in both of those terrible tragedies.

As for the computer science piece, with the computing landscape changing so rapidly, I have to wonder if a campus-based program—with a pre-approved syllabus—could ever keep up with how fast the landscape changes. In 1982, I worked one summer during college as a COBOL programmer. How many people still use COBOL? (My God, that language is more verbose than Shakespeare.) And web scripting languages? First it was Perl, then PHP, and now maybe a trifecta of PHP, Python, and AJAX. And don’t forget JavaScript. No wonder online classes are flourishing. They can change and adapt to trends much faster than traditional college courses.

One final computer science note: While my educational background is all over the place (electrical computer engineering, then computer science, then English, then Technical and Scientific Communication), it all prepared me for what I do best: build websites, which require a heaping dose of communication, graphic design (self-taught), and computer savvy. That said, I am Drupal CMS-dependent, and dependent on the PHP coders who write all the open-source modules that go with it. The downside? I’ve already lost out on two well-paying Drupal jobs because I can’t hand-code Drupal PHP modules. (It is a goal to learn to do so.)

There has got to be more programming taught in computer science, or perhaps, better yet, a new major entirely devoted to being a code monkey. Too much of college is theory that doesn’t change, and not real-world skills that get people jobs. In my case that’s my fault for major-hopping, but for those in computer science programs, they should have to learn and become proficient in as many languages as possible. Perhaps course offerings should be broken down into different tracks: web scripting, mobile OS development, etc. Just some random thoughts.


I haven’t yet actually seen an Apple map, but that hasn’t stopped me from wondering, what were they thinking?  Is this not the best example of re-inventing the wheel, ever?

I can’t imagine a circumstance where Apple would ever catch up with Google maps without spending the hundreds of millions of dollars that Google has, and maybe not even then, because Google would have taken several next steps to improving theirs.

The smart move for Apple would be to throw in the towel, and return cap-in-hand to Google.  If they couldn’t stomach that, there are other map-makers out there.


Both user surveys and personal experience show that in the real world iOS maps are in no way a disaster. They do have a few embarrassing glitches, but in general they work just fine. i’ve only encountered glitches when i’ve gone searching for them. in actual use for navigation, i haven’t had a problem.
So John, your disaster syndrome really doesn’t apply here.
And, my inner pedant coming out here, as I know you know, “phenomena” is plural, you really meant “phenomenon” in your opening sentence.




The knowledgeable know that Apple lives by steady iteration and that takes patience*1; a rare skill in these climes. The others are so willing to jump to glitz and glare in hopes their resources will be met with success enough to weather another day that they ‘readily fling themselves upon any horse and ride madly off in all directions’*.

Apple doesn’t suffer such worries.The iPhone 5 has been Apple’s focus from day one and it is not the end of its progress to perfection. The same is true of its map app and it will follow the same patient path and all will look with wonder and say that it is very good, but Apple will not take any time to rest.

Apple does not lose heart and neither should its followers. There are enough discussions by worthy reviewers and users who find Maps to be in a number of respects better than the map by Google and who have found flaws in Google maps that are plainly accepted or overlooked by its users. Apple was always held to the highest standards by its most demanding task master*3 and the company continues the tradition. The idea that Apple should give up and service Google with the data it lusts after is ludicrous in light of Apple DNA.

*1 patience: the capacity to tolerate delay, problems or suffering without becoming annoyed or anxious.
*2 paraphrased from Stephen Leacock
*3 Apple’s customers and its distractors hold Apple to the same high standards. For the rest, wiz & bang are good enough.
(No offence meant to wiz or bang)


I agree that Apple Maps is not a disaster.

Last weekend I had the need to travel by motorbike to the depths of rural Lincolnshire UK - cross country of course since I was on my bike. A real case opportunity to get lost… I plotted the route and studied it on the iPhone before I left, to try to memorise the route. Nevertheless I got lost. Stopped to find out where I was to discover “Searching…” then “No signal…” However, Maps had cached the route map, still scalable and I was able to find where I was and where to go. Brilliant! Could never have happened with Google Maps.

This week, I was walking in London - apparently notoriously dodgy. Apple maps got me there perfectly efficiently, to the right place fast - much faster mapping than my experience with Google Maps.

I have no desire to return to crappy Google Maps (even if it does know more places.)


After reading about all the problems with the Maps app, I was pleasantly surprised when I landed in NW Arkansas and tried using it for the first time (in an area I was utterly unfamiliar with). I was blown away by the accuracy and ease of use. I travel constantly and I found Maps to be superior to the GPS Drive app by MotionX and definitely superior to the old Google-driven Maps. The turn-by-turn voice commands were excellent. I know there must be some glitches, what with all the hubbub, but I can’t find any.


Ok, first, the maps app works very well for me, the integration with siri is solid (as far as siri goes), and we shouldn’t forget the complexity of shifting from satellite and aerial photography to vector-based maps… it’s like introducing Postscript to the typography world and gads… having a few glitches.

Anyway, I digress. Perhaps what we’re seeing is the trickle down of the Cook management style versus Jobs? Jobs would ask for something difficult in a way that supposedly would make people tremble. Cook may try to be as aggressive but just doesn’t inspire enough fear to push people to another level? I don’t like the kind of management I am implying was Jobs style… but maybe perhaps the motivation level is different?


Well after all the fuss about apple Maps app in the first week, I was pleasantly surprised. It is well designed, superior google maps replacement. In the UK it is accurate and routes efficiently, gives route options and reroutes well if you take the wrong turn (purposely did to test many a time).  Fantastic zoom behaviour, you can rotate the map so it points in the right direction from your perspective and reverts to north pointing with a touch.
Perhaps the most important feature is the whole route is cached, so it still works when signal is lost.  And if you do need more area covered, it loads so quickly, no more staring at blank squares till it loads, for area as well as for each level of zoom.
Okay it gives you some wrong info, as does every other GPS app .... google still gives wrong info though over the past 5 yrs it has become more and more accurate. Google gave a location just last week in the USA for a UK post code… I have the screen shot but realised I cant post that in comments. And wonky bridges will be put right, just like google corrected so many of its mistakes with help from you and me.

Have you considered, maybe the Abilene paradox applies to you tech journalists? Many individual reports and experiences suggest the apple maps are largely fine with some mistakes, yes, but not that much of a disaster as you portray it. But journalists all together seems to have decided that it is a disaster of epic proportions.

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