Google, Apple, Jacob, And The Man In Black

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ABC’s popular television show Lost comes to an end this weekend. This season has been largely about the backstory for why things are the way they are on the island. It’s a minor spoiler to say it, but I’m going to anyway — basically, it boils down to a war between two brothers, Jacob and the Man in Black. Growing up, the two brothers were very close but decisions each made, forced them apart. And once apart, a series of events occurred that showed them just how different they really were. Those two brothers remind me a lot of Google and Apple right now.

If there was any remaining doubt that Google and Apple were in the midst of an all-out war, yesterday erased all those doubts. Anyone who was sitting in the Google I/O keynote heard shot after shot taken against Apple and their closed iPhone platform. Some references were thinly veiled. Some were not. It was really quite remarkable to watch. And I loved every minute of it.

The Fight

Regular readers will know my affinity for Apple products. But they’ll also know that I have a strong affinity towards Google products as well. My rationale is simple: I like the best products. Apple has some (the iPhone, MacBooks), Google has others (Gmail, Chrome). And that’s why I love that these two are now battling. In many ways, it’s a fair fight — both have strengths and both have weaknesses. And because it’s a even match, both are going to force one another to make their products better. And the consumers will win as a result.

Obviously, both have other rivals as well. And both have had rivals in the past. But part of what makes the Apple/Google rivalry great is that they used to be so close — because they had some of the same basic ideas. Namely, that Microsoft needed to be defeated. Both have battled Microsoft over the years — Apple, far longer than Google, of course. But the Apple/Microsoft and Google/Microsoft rivalries were never this entertaining because most of the time the fight has been one-sided.

During the PC wars of the 80s and 90s, Apple at first was much bigger than Microsoft. But then the momentum shiftly the exact opposite way, and Microsoft was much bigger than Apple. Meanwhile, in the desktop wars, Microsoft dominates one of their core businesses where Google is trying to compete: Office. And Google dominates one of their core businesses where Microsoft is trying to compete: Search (well, really, just about everything online). These aren’t fair fights. At least not yet. They could get more interesting over time, but for now it’s a bit like watching a blowout in sports — it’s no fun to watch (unless maybe you’re a diehard fan of the winning side). But Google and Apple squaring off should be competitive. And, as a result, fun to watch. The keynote yesterday proved that.

Android/iPhone

With Android, Google seems to now have its focus on one thing: beating Apple. That’s interesting because when Android started out, it was clearly set up to be a platform to kill Windows Mobile. But again, there was no fight there. Windows Mobile laid down as if it were paid to take a dive. And at the time, Apple clearly didn’t consider Google a threat with Android, or else they would have removed Google CEO Eric Schmidt from their board of directors long before they actually did. But things change over time. Goals are reassessed and set higher. Google and Apple are now clearly the two frontrunners in the longterm mobile game (sorry RIM and Nokia). And they’re doing what the two at the top do: battle to be number one.

Google TV/Apple TV

But here’s why this is really going to be a great fight: it’s encompassing. While Steve Jobs is reported to have said that the Android team at Google wants to kill the iPhone, it’s starting to go beyond that. As we saw yesterday, round two of the fight may be Google TV vs. Apple TV. Considering that Apple hasn’t taken Apple TV very seriously up until this point (it’s a “hobby,” remember), it may not seem like much of a fight. But don’t be surprised if this pushes Apple back into the ring in a big way. And it’s similar to Android vs. iPhone because it’s open platform (Google TV) vs. closed system (Apple TV). Not to mention the fact that Google TV runs Android. And don’t be surprised if in the future, a new version of the Apple TV runs the iPhone OS.

Google Tunes/iTunes

As we also saw yesterday, Google is finally preparing to take on iTunes directly. There aren’t much details at this point (and execs refused to give them when questioned later), but the fact that Google showed off this “proof-of-concept” on stage at their biggest keynote of the year, shows they’re serious about it. Google is going to start selling songs through the web browser to compete with the iTunes software. And these songs will automatically sync with all your Android devices over the cloud. Apple, meanwhile, is rumored to be working on an iTunes-in-the-cloud solution to replace (or at least supplement) its popular software.

Remember though, iTunes isn’t just about music purchases. It’s the central hub for all of its new popular devices — the iPhone, the iPad, the iPod touch (and even the aforementioned Apple TV). iTunes is the App Store too. Google started out the other way, with an app store (Market) that only existed on its devices. But that’s moving over fully to the web now, and extending beyond apps, into music. And you can bet other content will follow if that works.

Yesterday on stage, Sony CEO Howard Stringer said that “domination is beating Apple — it’s a new definition.” Google is rallying others to its cause — people in charge of a lot of content. This is going to be a major clash.

Chrome OS/iPad

And there’s also Chrome OS. While this new product (due later this year) is right now aimed more squarely at Microsoft — and specifically, netbooks running Windows — this will clash with Apple too. At first, I didn’t think it would, but the iPad changed that. As Steve Jobs has made very clear, the iPad isn’t just Apple’s answer to the netbook, it’s Apple’s answer that’s better than a netbook in every way (in his mind, at least). More importantly, this isn’t just about one sub-market, this is about the future of computing. So is Chrome OS.

Google believes the future is the web browser. That’s all Chrome OS is, a web browser. While they’re clearly ramping up Android to be their OS for the foreseeable future, Chrome OS is more inline with the long-term strategy of the company. They don’t want native apps to rule the world, they want the web to. No less than Sergey Brin made this clear two days ago when he said that he believes Android and Chrome OS would eventually merge into one web OS.

That Google is putting so much into Android right now just shows how smart they are. They see the pattern. The iPhone and its native apps are winning. Those without a strong mobile presense are losing. And right now, to have a strong mobile presense, you need native apps. HTML5 just isn’t quite ready to do what native apps can. And depending on who you listen to, it won’t be for a long time (Joe Hewitt) — or it will be sooner than expected (Google).

And because apps are winning on mobile phones, they’re starting to win on other devices too — like the iPad. That’s why Google is putting Android in Google TV; because the apps are winning. But again, Google’s long-term bet is that the web (and web apps) will eventually take over. It’s just going to take a while. But Chrome OS (and its own Chrome Web Store) is the first step to shift momentum back to the web. That may make Chrome OS netbooks versus the iPad one of the most interesting Apple/Google battles.

iAds/Google Ads

This isn’t all Google invading Apple’s space. Apple is getting ready to enter the online ad space in a major way with iAds. This is aimed squarely at Google’s core business (advertising), which has yet to catch on in a major way on mobile devices. Because actions are different on mobile devices, the ads have to be different, Jobs reasons. For now, that seems to be true. Search is less important, and apps are more important. iAds are all about rich in-app advertising, Google is mostly about more basic search-based text advertising.

But yesterday during the keynote, Google also showed off richer ads for mobile that they’ve been working on. They didn’t look as nice as iAds, but it’s clearly in response to Apple’s efforts.

Apple is a company dependent on hardware sales. Google is a company reliant on advertising revenue. iAds is Apple going for Google’s jugular perhaps more than any single Google threat is going after Apple. Say Android kills the iPhone (which won’t happen, of course, neither is going to “kill” the other one), Apple still has the Mac business, they still have the iPod business, they still have the new iPad business. If iAds kill Google Ads, Google is screwed.

MobileMe/Google Apps

As of right now, the “battle” between MobileMe and Google Apps is basically not a battle at all due to the fact that Apple (rather ridiculously) charges $99 a year for MobileMe, and Google Apps (for the most part) is free. But there are rumors that MobileMe could soon become a free set of services that Apple uses to tie many of its products together. MobileMe is a great solution for that currently, the price just isn’t right (especially not to take on Google Apps).

Apple has yet to really show that they’re aware of the importance of the cloud going forward in computing. But with the aforementioned rumors of iTunes-in-the-cloud, the related acquisition of cloud music start-up Lala, and the massive cloud computing datacenter they’re building, indications are that they’re starting to get it. And if they do, they’ll be aiming squarely at one rival: Google.

Lost

Going back to Lost, even though the two brothers, Jacob and the Man in Black, are at odds with one another, they routinely meet up. This reminds me of a certain recent meeting between two CEOs. The fact of the matter is that despite their very real differences, they share more in common than perhaps they’re willing to admit now (both the brothers and the companies).

With the brothers, one appears to be good, while the other appears to be evil. But the fact is that both have their rationale behind what they’re doing. And the one that is “good” seems to actually have a weaker rationale than the one who is “evil.” And, interesting, the one now perceived to be good, used to be perceived as evil (I’d go into that more, but I don’t want to spoil too much — maybe in a later post).

Right now, at least in the eyes of much of the press, Apple is perceived to the be “evil” company, while Google is the “good” one. This is largely based around the fact that Google (and its platform) is more open than Apple is. But just as with the brothers, both have their rationale behind what they’re doing. And, just as with the brothers, perceptions change over time. It’s naive to think one is good and one is evil. Both believe they’re doing what’s best for their users.

And again, that’s why this war between the two is great: it’s only going to make things better for the users. Google will make moves, and Apple will be forced to respond. Apple will make moves, and Google will have to respond. They will have to keep one-upping one another in terms of what they’re offering. And because they’re evenly matched, it’s not apparent how either will get the upper-hand and actually beat the other one anytime soon. It’s like the two brothers: neither can kill the other one, even though both want to. That’s the key: a fair fight. As long as it stays that way between Apple and Google, we’ll all win.

Or, to put it in a more straightforward and less allegorical way, having two companies with relatively equal power going head-to-head gives us, as consumers, a fundamental necessity: choice.

[photo: ABC]

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