The conflict between Apple and Google — and their respective audiences — is one of the most inane and pointless narrative threads in the technology industry. And, following I/O, it's at a disappointing height.
Google has been vilified as a thief and a purveyor of less-than-stellar business practices. Accusations frequently rain down upon the Mountain View giant for its habit of culling services, whilst the company's executives speak of balance and unabated innovation.
Strong talk of contradictory philosophies is also a mainstay of modern discourse surrounding Google. People speak of the inability to pin down what it is, precisely, that Google does as a business.
Of course, there's plenty of validity to such perspectives. Google relies upon advertising for its sustenance, the company often shuts down services, and its executives — as recently as last week — are guilty of preaching about innovation in spite of all other apparent elements of their business.
The question I have is why these are all such awful, crushing, despicable, terrible, ruinous things? Why are those in the Apple community at such teeth-gnashing odds with Google? Why is the Google community at such polarization with Apple's?
The obvious answer that leaps to mind is Android — a mobile operating system that borrowed extremely heavily from the original iPhone OS several years ago — but I tend to think this is near-sighted. Perhaps Android-equipped devices are sold in the same shops as their modern iOS counterparts and perhaps, indeed, Android is accordingly a direct competitor to Apple. Executives in both camps have certainly both positioned them as such.
Still, though, why such anger? Why should a competitor be viewed as such a dangerous and awful agent? If Apple commentators are to be believed, Android is hampered by poor design, fragmented implementation, and an inability to effectively support paid software.
Regardless of the truth of these stereotypical views, it seems fair to suggest that a great many Apple onlookers view Android as inferior to iOS. That's not to say it's a horrid, ineffective piece of software, but, more graciously, just not quite up to par with Apple's offering. Thus, if true, surely Android would pose little significance to iOS? If it lacks the potency and robust support of iOS, then what could it possibly threaten?
Again, why such anger?
For me, as someone with a vested interest in innovation, there are few — if any — companies I admire more than Apple and Google. I own — almost exclusively — Apple devices and I use — almost exclusively — Google web services. From this vantage point, I suppose I must see things differently. I see Google as one of the most exciting and endearing companies in the industry, just as much as I adore Apple for its beautiful products and its disruptive potential.
This tribalism of Apple versus Google is utterly inconsequential. Moreover, for every point made against each other, there's a plateau of reasonable rationale that exists in the middle ground.
Specifically, the reason we perceive contradictions within Google's business is because, yes, there are plenty. And the reason we decry confused rhetoric is because, yes, Google focuses on many things.
Google was founded to be the best means for the retrieval of information available for anyone with an Internet connection. That's quite literally what the company's name implies. It wasn't founded as a means to generate high profit margins, it was done for the sake of bettering the experiential side of the Internet. Sergey Brin and Larry Page literally built it as an experiment whilst pursuing their PhDs.
In doing so, yes, Google outperformed pre-existing search providers. Accordingly, Google became a business. (Incidentally, before proceeding, Brin and Page approached search incumbent, Excite, about their technology with a view to acquisition and were rejected.) It supported people and they had to monetize their platform. They wanted to continue to provide the best. And so they did.
The spirit of experimentation, however, has yet to be shaken from its position at the core of Google.
Utterly unlike Apple, Google experiments in the open, but this ought not to be decried. Gmail was in beta for a seemingly interminable volume of time — something people often joke about — but, today, it's arguably the best email client in the world. They far outperformed Hotmail and AOL, instead offering an affable and modern client for a huge quantity of people.
Yes, in crass terms, it's just "webmail but better." But point me to a better option. Point me to Apple, for instance, outperforming Gmail with MobileMe or iCloud. They simply and irrefutably do not match up. The same goes for Microsoft, Yahoo!, and AOL.
Perhaps Gmail was in beta for a long time — insert trite joke here — but it was out, living, and available to its users throughout. As a result, today, Gmail continues to be the best consumer-grade email service available. And it improves and evolves all the time.
Apple's notorious ineffectiveness as a web service provider is precisely due to its insularity when it comes to building products. Apple — affably — wants to build the very best product it can within the confines of Cupertino and then release it to the public only when it's perfect. Apple and its users, however, are fallible. These services need to be tested and — as with virtually any startup in the world — there needs to be a minimum viable product.
Apple has recognized this with its beta tests of iOS and OS X, but it has failed to recognize this with any other service. Siri is, admittedly, labeled as a beta. But unlike Gmail, it was touted as a tentpole feature from day one. And it has failed to remotely live up to the hype. The same goes for Apple Maps.
The distinction between Apple and Google is as follows:
Google is the modern business equivalent of a science fair. Within the confines of its campus, engineers are given the latitude to build, innovate, and experiment with few barriers. Outside of its campus, they have broad outreach and investment programs to catalyze development. As a result, aesthetics have often been inconsistent, products have lived shortly, and coherence has been lacking. But, again, what's so awful about that?
Google's experimenting with self-driving cars, wearable computing, interior mapping, and is leaving behind itself a trail of tools for people to engage. What other company is doing that at the moment? Certainly not Apple. (Before you say it, that's not a bad thing.)
Some of these products become sellable and viable for a marketplace. Some do not. Some flitter in and out of our collective awareness and some never see the light of day. There's no scientific rhyme or reason to it — it's organic and lacks raw structure
Apple and Google are fundamentally different. Google believes in building with its users, whilst Apple believes in building for its users.
Google is a company dabbling in all manner of software and hardware, whilst Apple is a company building a very specific strata of products for a specific demographic of customers.
Apple, accordingly, has a well-defined narrative because its outset goal is simple. The folks in Cupertino are trying to build the best products for you to buy. More recently, they're also trying to provide the best storefront through which you can sell your wares. And they're excelling far beyond anyone's expectations — with the exception of a nervous Wall Street — in a truly wonderful way.
Google, on the other hand, is dabbling in all manner of things. There's no cohesive narrative because there's no cohesion to its goals. And attempting to frame this as a disastrous problem for the company when compared to Apple is only to betray a complete misunderstanding of Google.
Google held a three hour keynote last week because it had three hours worth of news from across its diverse ecosystem to share. And that was without even touching on Google Glass and its other crazier initiatives. Apple holds shorter events perhaps because it is more concise and practiced, but also because it has a deep-seated sense of restraint ingrained within its corporate culture.
In spite of all of these perceived incompatibilities, however, I cannot help but think there ought to be harmony and symbiosis between the two. Google's acumen with web services and its keen desire to work for the benefit of a broad swath of people could directly benefit Apple's ability to produce the best hardware, designs, and products in the industry. Apple has also proven its capabilities to enable and foster a thriving ecosystem for third party developers. Marry this success with Google's toolsets and I suspect you'd have an extremely potent, albeit unrealistic, combination.
As Larry Page opined about the prohibitive power of negativity, we were reminded of the original reason Google was started and the continuing reason why Google remains so fascinating. We saw a man speak about how he wants to improve the digital human experience for all. And, somehow, we responded with discussions about the evil of advertising revenue and the shuttering of XMPP.
(Also, whilst at this juncture, it's fascinating to witness the double-standard shown toward Google over Apple. When Apple deprecates support of technologies, we respond that it's the cost of innovation. When Google does it, we highlight how terribly contradictory it is. Not to mention jokes about "openness.")
The reason advertising is the predominant means for Google's revenue is because it is business model agnostic. Knowing it can advertise products to people atop its various platforms, Google can sustain and build virtually anything it wants for the maximum number of users. The cost of entry for a user into the Google ecosystem is a minuscule processing cycle occurring somewhere deep within an anonymous server farm to push a targeted ad towards you.
Perhaps you, as a technologist, balk at such an intrusion. Most, however, focus only upon the end-result.
Last week, Google set itself up for the next two years. It laid the developmental groundwork for a rich and fertile ecosystem. It provided the tools and mechanisms necessary for developers to be at their best. They introduced new ways to interact with the Internet and all of the data therein and they focused on undercutting the negativity inherent within modern cellular carrier business models. And we know there will be plenty more to come throughout the year for Google Glass, Android, Chrome, and other such projects.
And, bafflingly, we responded that Larry Page isn't genuine, that Google's business model is horrible, that Google Reader is dead, and that Apple would never do anything like this.
I suspect that if Page had not taken the stage at the conclusion and spoken in such a candid fashion, responses to the event would've been significantly different. Remove his socially chaotic views of a land unencumbered by laws and you would've had a long event punctuated with genuine points of value and interest.
John Gruber wrote that Google entered markets and outperformed incumbents and that this is evidence of Google not being a truly innovative or friendly company. By association, the implication is that Apple is a friendly and truly innovative company. This is, of course, despite the fact that Apple has made its fortune since the return of Steve Jobs and after his passing by entering markets and disrupting the incumbents therein. Just look at the iPod, the iPhone, iTunes, and so on.
Google is not an evil entity. I didn't see anyone take that stage that had any obvious mal-intent. Instead, I saw women and men from many different cultures discussing innumerable efforts they've made to make Google better for you as developers and consumers. It wasn't about selling devices or cornering markets, it was about a sincere attempt to bring coherence and narrative to a place where innovation occurs unabated. Perhaps they failed to do so, but is that really such due cause for vilification and dismissal?
The thing that no one seems to understand is that Google is an entirely different animal than Apple. Comparing them is an effort in virtual futility. Perhaps Google has exacerbated this in years past by directly attacking Apple (and vice versa), but I think we all need to move beyond such reductive and anti-competitive viewpoints.
Apple is attempting to build the very best tools to engage with the digital world. They're crafting genuinely beautiful feats of industrial design so that we, people of the Internet, can work and interact at our utmost. Google, on the other hand, is attempting to build the best Internet for all of us.
Those desires do not conflict and the positioning of one company against another — which seems to be borne out of little more than anxiety and pointless brand allegiance — is reductive. Google is excelling at what it wants to be and I suspect, with WWDC and "new products" on the horizon, Apple will do the same.
I joke a lot about the term "platform agnosticism," but it's how I genuinely feel. More than any other time I can remember, we're gifted with an era in which engineers, designers, and developers are being enabled to build to the very best of their abilities. Google is fostering an environment in which this can occur with the least friction possible and Apple is building the very best raw tools to enable these people. Perhaps there's competitive overlap, but is that really so awful? Must we truly take a soft-spoken executive to task over every candid word he shared in his speech because we prefer one company's telephones over another?
Apple's hardware business is not under threat by Google and Google's service business is not under threat by Apple. Unless something drastic changes over the next year, that'll remain the same.
Call me an idealist. That's fine. I'll accept it with open arms. It's far better to be an idealist in an environment of amazing engineering for our benefit than it is to be a curmudgeonly decrier of one brand versus another.
I applaud Google for all they spoke of last week. I applaud Larry Page for speaking about the value of positivity. And, you know what, I'll applaud Apple in June as well. I'll applaud Tim Cook for fighting the negativity surrounding his stewardship.
The two need not be mutually exclusive.