Apple and Google: Fighting to the death?
Posted by Andrew Tobert on 27 June 2012
On 12th June 2012, Apple, like they do every year, upgraded their products. And just like every year, millions will rush to Apple stores to get their hands on the latest kit. And thousands of Foxconn workers will be coming to the end of a 90-hour week, glowing in the satisfaction of another job well done. But what was really going on? Was this just another product launch or something else? Something altogether more sinister?
It’s the latter, in case my introduction wasn’t sufficiently leading. Apple, in the words of Steve Jobs’ biography, was going ‘thermonuclear’ on Google Yes, once the bromance of Silicon Valley, Apple and Google are now sworn enemies. Apple had nudged Google Maps off its phones. And Siri, a search engine, was now marching its way onto the iPads. Yes, this was, and is, war.
But it started so well. They both shared a larger, hundred-billion-dollar competitor that posed an existential threat to both of them, (Microsoft, remember them?) so they played nice. Eric Schmidt, Google’s co-founder, was on Apple’s board. Google was the default search engine in Safari, Apple’s browser. All was well.
Then in 2007 the iPhone was launched This product, even for Apple skeptics, represented a step-change in what mobile phones could do. You could use the full internet easily (remember WAP? shudders), and the world of apps opened up endless possibilities. The original iPhone was, in my opinion, Apple’s greatest triumph.
And it meant that Apple was no longer the minor player in a Windows-dominated market. Apple Computer Inc was now just ‘Apple’, a company selling a lifestyle as much as technology. And a corporate giant in its own right.
So if Windows was no longer an existential threat, Apple had less reason to be nice to Google. And Google was now in danger of looking like a one trick pony, in a world of, er, multi-talented horses. So they attacked.
Google is a media company. It makes its money from selling advertising. The launch of the iPhone and apps meant that users could access all the functionality of the web without eyeballing a single (Google) ad. Suddenly, the existence of Google was threatened not by Microsoft’s almost-bottomless war chest, but by advances in technology. It was being left behind, so it launched Android.
Ok, so it didn’t watch the iPhone launch and think ‘we should get in on that‘. It bought Android (the mobile operating system) in 2005, clearly aware that it had to do something with mobile. But equally, you couldn’t look at the HTC Dream (also known as the G1), the first Android handset launched in October 2008, and tell me that it wasn’t heavily influenced by the design, look and feel of the iPhone. Considered an intuitive design for web-centric phones, the button-light, screen-heavy design of the iPhone was a revolution in its day. All Androids, and indeed all iPhones, have been copycats ever since.
So in moving into the mobile space, Google and Apple were now direct competitors for the first time. Google had a mechanism for getting its services (adverts) in front of millions. And Apple had won over a whole new swathe of the population: people who bought into the Apple brand, but didn’t want to, or couldn’t, abandon the Windows ecosystem. But Google didn’t stop there. And neither did Apple.
Around the same time as Android’s launch, Google launched Chrome in its attempt to speed up internet browsing. At the time, this seemed understandable as the less time you spend waiting for a page to load, the more time you have to view (and click on) ads. A win for Google, a win for consumers. Sure, Firefox probably weren’t too happy, but it’s not as though anyone makes any money from browsers, right? (Actually, no). So when Chrome was launched on Macs in 2009 that was probably nothing to get too upset about.
Except that now Chrome was on an increasing number of Macs, and Google Maps and search were on all iPhones. Apple was handing its direct competitor eyeballs (and therefore, dollars) in the millions. A favor that wasn’t being reciprocated in any way. And that matters. When people come to purchase a phone, all those tiny inconsequential interactions with someone else’s brand suddenly equate to a purchase decision that doesn’t go the way you want it to.
Now it was Apple’s turn to launch the offensive. In 2010, it launched iAd, an in-app advertising program. For the first time, Apple was now a media seller.
Then Google launched Chrome OS, its first operating system, to run on Google-branded laptops, Chromebooks. In the space of a year, Apple and Google had created products with the sole purpose of raining on the other’s parade. (Perhaps not ‘sole’ purpose, but whatever. Never let the facts get in the way of a good story.)
Then in 2011, Apple integrated Siri, its (acquired) natural language voice search app, into the iPhone 4S. So Apple was now a search company too. Google also recently launched Google Play, an updated and improved version of its app store. Also, a clear dig at iTunes.
So Google and Apple are out-and-out competitors in almost all the markets they operate in. Google doesn’t make hardware although it does own Motorola, but it's keeping that at arm's length For now. And Apple doesn’t (yet) run a full-blown search engine. Microsoft is meanwhile struggling for relevance (outside the office). But where is this going? Is this one of those Pepsi vs Coca-Cola battles, two companies that are supposed to be sworn enemies but [actually co-exist quite happily]? Or is this Harry Potter vs Voldemort, a Clash of the Titans, all-or-nothing victory?
It’s certainly not Pepsi/Coke part deux. With those two companies, you can pick and choose each’s products. There’s no judgement call, no culture war, it’s just a matter of personal preference.
With Apple and Google though, the two are diametrically opposed. Apple, with its apps and now its maps doesn’t really like the web. Sure, it likes the technology behind it, but the idea of openness isn’t something Apple enjoys. It wants its users to have a great experience, but it wants to control most of it. Any interaction with third parties is to be avoided if it can help it. A neat example of this is that Apple Maps don’t have transit options but they’re happy to integrate with third party developers Ie, if you want data that Apple can’t provide, you can have it, but not with their brand on it. You’ll need to hunt for it yourself. As a non-driver, this means I have to put my faith in the (app store) market, rather than just get something that works for free. AKA Google Maps.
Google however, is all about the web. It loves openness and data. The more it can help you access and use that data, the better everyone is.
Its approach to products is also different. Apple launches (supposed-to-be) faultless products. You buy a Mac, you pay top dollar, you expect greatness. When there are problems, you know about it But with Google it’s all about failing fast They launch products, wait for user feedback, then develop like crazy to make them better.
These two approaches mean that we, consumers, can’t avoid making judgement calls about what we buy. Do we value openness or do we want perfection?
It’s probably clear that I sympathize more with Google’s approach. But that doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy Apple’s products. And I really don’t want to have to choose. I might want to buy an iPhone, but wouldn’t necessarily want Apple Maps. Why should I suffer a worse user experience after spending 500 odd dollars on a phone?
The thing is, each company does what it does really well. Google sorts data, and is great at it. (I don’t care if it sells me advertising. I’m happy to make that trade.) And Apple too. There’s no denying that they make good products.
My new MacBook is amazing, but Apple suck at making software, as any user of iTunes or iMovie can tell you: they’re clunky and they never work how you want them to. I’ve tried to use Siri but, what with my alien accent, it can’t understand what I’m saying. It’s not just me either. I’ve never used Apple Maps, but I have it on good authority that they're terrible
Likewise, Google’s Chrome operating system (OS) is crap (I’ve been trying to use it for eight months – my Macbook Air with its OS X is, by comparison, a breath of fresh, er, air. Sorry). Android is OK (and in fairness, getting better) but Google’s attempts at social networks have been well-documented failures (Although I’m quietly optimistic about Google+ but that’s more for SEO reasons than anything social.)
There was once a time when the odd dud product wouldn’t matter. We’d just live with it, or get something else. But the increasing animosity between Apple and Google means it’s now increasingly hard to pick and choose the products we want, to choose Coke one day and Pepsi the next. Danny Sullivan thinks that what we’re seeing is containment rather than war But I‘m not sure. They’re both throwing products at consumers, whilst making it increasingly hard for them to opt out. Apple won’t let you have a Google product and Google is busy marrying you to its entire suite
And none of this is in the interests of consumers. Where once we had the Microsoft monopoly, now we have an arms race between these two. Google is trying to diversify its revenue stream (it gets most of it’s money from search), and is panicking about the improving functionality of Siri and, to a lesser extent, Maps.
And Apple too is showing a remarkable lack of confidence in its products. Pulling Google products for inferior Apple ones directly harms user experience, Apple’s key competitive advantage. And its move into less physical products (cloud tools maps, Siri and even the App store) is surely, hopefully, a response to the realization that its entire supply chain to dependent on the political situation in China. Logistically if for nothing else, the Apple products of the near-future will look increasingly less like the ones of the present.
So the days of cooperating between Apple and Google are long gone. Within a year or two I‘d be very surprised if they weren’t competing in all their respective markets. Which means that if current trends continue, consumers will have to choose between the two. Like Liberals and Conservatives, right-handers and left, people will be one or the other, but never both. What products you buy will be a statement about you, about where your tribal instincts lie. And the incentive for these companies to do anything truly great will be gone. It’ll be Microsoft all over over again, just split in two. Progress, I suppose, of sorts.