by PAUL DEVLIN

It’s hard to imagine Bill Gates signing off on a public apology when Windows Vista launched in 2007 and a billion PCs suddenly couldn’t connect to their printers.

But 2012 is a much less forgiving age. Once we might have scoffed about software glitches to our tech-loving pals over MSN Messenger or vented our rage about broken drivers in geeky online forums. With the advent of Twitter, the whole world can now band together to vent their collective rage–like a group counseling session with everyone shouting at once.

Apple’s long-awaited iOS 6 arrived last month along with the iPhone 5. For the most part, the updated operating system has been a success, with 100 million users (myself included) upgrading since the launch—trusting, as we do, that Apple’s user-friendly design teams would keep us in safe hands.

And, for the most part, it worked. Except for one minor detail that has earned our collective Twitter mockery: Apple’s ditching of Google’s near flawless Maps application in favor of a proprietary system.

Poor Apple maps proved to be fraught with unintentional comedy and the internet banded together to re-tweet every inglorious snap of map bugs and epic fails. Thanks to the committed blog The Amazing iOS 6 Maps in particular, we were all immediately privvy to the twisted Brooklyn Bridge, the worrying reappearance of the Berlin Wall in Montreal, and the London Eye losing both its spokes and its pods (though perhaps nobody noticed after the 2011 riots).

Heaven help anyone using the turn-by-turn navigation, as the risk of taking a sharp left into the ocean became exponentially greater (especially if you're trying to reach a small island off the coast of Ilfracombe, Devon).

And we enjoyed it, mocking the great white Apple as if its underwear was visible. The truth is, all apps have bugs, and bugs get fixed. I would have expected the errors in Maps to be quietly ironed out over a few months, like delousing a straw mattress one tic at a time. This would be in keeping with their response to other criticisms and mockery: Siri’s strange resistance to finding abortion clinics, for example, and more recently of its own Apple stores.

This made Apple’s rush to apologize for its Maps mistake a surprising and somewhat shocking move for a major American company.

In Britain, we have a strong culture of apologizing that's ingrained into our psyche, just as strong as our innate desire to talk to strangers about the weather. Even as I write this column, I am mentally preparing my apology to any Apple-ites who might take offence at my mildly invective viewpoint.

It was perhaps less of shock for us Brits, then, to see Apple CEO Tim Cook practically groveling over the fiasco. How I cheered when he used the normally verboten ‘s’ word directly: “We are extremely sorry for the frustration this has caused our customers and we are doing everything we can to make Maps better.”

Once I’d gotten over the shock that Apple’s top man had taken the bullet himself, I stopped to think, struck by the anomalous apology. What, exactly, is Apple’s culture of sorry? When is one sorry a-OK, and another demands a stiff upper lip, a holier-than-thou silence?

For example: if Cook is so quick to apologize for a dodgy app, I asked myself (out loud, wandering in a street I was lost in and warding off potential muggers by pretending I was insane) why couldn’t he publish the apology Apple owes Samsung for claiming it stole the iPad design for the Galaxy Tab? A judge ordered that one—you would expect it to take priority.

Is that hard to just apologize and hug it out, like bitter sales department rivals on a company bonding retreat? Yes, it is for me; I’m English and prefer a firm handshake. But I expect better from the other side of the pond.

I think we have the new loud cacophony of social media to thank for this unusually quick apology. And it was one, albeit twisted into a backhanded compliment of sorts, as Cook went on to stress how there are “already more than 100 million iOS devices using the new Apple Maps, with more and more joining us every day.”

100 million is also a heck of a lot of baffled, possibly litigious people struggling to find their nearest Starbucks on a street that either doesn’t exit or loops into the sky like an Escher drawing. If only a small fraction of those 100 million talk about it—publicly, online, making witty remarks or pointing out flaws—Apple has (and did have) a veritable sea of embarassment crashing down on its doors. I see Paris, I see France, I see Apple’s underpants.

In fairness, Apple has been here before, with the iPhone 4 Antennagate scandal that made a lot of people question whether the Cupertino-based company actually had a QA department. The late Steve Jobs took a similarly apologetic approach then, and, as free cases were doled out to owners across the globe, the public seemed less bothered than the vitriolic bloggers.

But Steve Jobs had a hell of a lot more charisma than Tim Cook has yet to show, and with every day the culture of online criticism gets stronger, louder, wider, and more democratic. It’s not just up to the vitriolic bloggers anymore. This is why Cook’s apology was so remarkably fast; Apple does’t have the time to spare, anymore, before embarrassments and snafus make global humor and parody—a matter of minutes. It’s a new era of accountability to the common man, and perhaps a new era of apologizing to him.

Take a leaf out of the handbook of British politeness, Tim: say sorry right away, like you mean it. Or even in advance. Hell, say it all the time. Sorry needn't be the hardest word anymore. And I’m sorry if you disagree. Really sorry.

A former newspaper hack, Paul somehow managed to turn his twin obsessions with shiny new gadgets and playing games into a web journalism career in the UK. Being English, he needs to be propped up with several pints of strong tea a day to give his sharpest opinions on technology and the hottest gaming topics—but that's what expenses are for, right? You can follow him @alvysingerUK.

Photos by butupa and via The Amazing iOS 6 Maps