Google’s Cloud Is Eating Apple’s Lunch

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A new front has opened in the smartphone war, and for the first time in many years, Apple is both outnumbered and outgunned.

I’m not talking about the phones themselves. iOS is still better than Android, although the gap has narrowed. The next iPhone will doubtless be the best phone in the world when it’s released, as ever. It won’t be as customizable – no Swype, no Facebook Home – but those remain relatively minor inferiorities.

The new battlefront is different. The new battlefront is the cloud: Google Maps vs. Apple Maps, Siri vs. Google voice search, iCloud vs. Dropbox et al, and Google Now vs…well, nothing at all, yet. This is a big deal. As we grow accustomed to an always-online world of ubiquitous computing, your phone becomes less a device in and of itself and more a gateway to its cloud services. And it’s very hard to argue that Apple is anything but the serious underdog here.

You know they have a problem when even die-hard Apple supporter John Gruber is linking to pieces like “Apple’s Broken Promise: iCloud and Core Data,” which is replete with quotes like “If they couldn’t get iCloud working, who can?” … “It just doesn’t work” … “Many of these issues take hours to resolve and some can permanently corrupt your account” … “A developer’s worst nightmare.”

Remember when Siri was introduced, and people were pronouncing it a serious threat to Google Search itself? No, really. Haven’t heard that one in a while, have you? And not without reason; Siri seems to have stagnated, while over in Mountain View, Google is doing some truly phenomenal things with many-layered neural networks — and superior voice search is just one of the applications.

Can Apple match that? Who knows — but it’s safe to say that this kind of thing, cutting-edge technology beyond great hardware and superb design, isn’t their core strength. It’s Google’s. As is shown by Google Now, which is inexplicably treated as nothing more than Google’s answer to Siri by hordes of writers who apparently can’t think beyond simple dichotomies. It’s much more than that; until Siri tells you what you should do before you ask, there’s really no comparison.

Meanwhile, Google Now has been released to iOS, continuing Google’s ongoing battle to dominate the iPhone app space. (They’ve been quite successful; the two most-downloaded iOS apps are YouTube and Google Maps.) As TC’s Semil Shah has pointed out, thanks to Apple’s iOS restrictions, no third party could build a true iOS competitor to Google Now on Android. Only Apple itself has that power.

But will they succeed? And by the time they do, will Google have outstripped them again? Again, nobody has a crystal ball; but Google has a long history of building superb, scalable, reliable, (mostly) developer-friendly, and technically groundbreaking web services. Apple…does not.

That said, a bet against them is by no means a guaranteed win. Consider Apple Maps, which has taken great strides since its initial stumbles. And as my friend Lunatic (no, really) pointed out while debating this post with me on Twitter, it’s a bit rich to call Apple overmatched while iOS’s share of the American smartphone market still seems to be increasing faster than Android’s, and

But at the very least, on this new cloud-services battlefront, Apple is in the unfamiliar position of underachieving underdog up against the mighty Google war machine. With Google I/O and Apple WWDC both only weeks away, we can expect to find out soon whether either has a new secret weapon. Let’s hope they both do, because the great thing about this war is that when these two giants do battle, everyone else usually wins.

Image credit: Clouds over SoMa, by yours truly, on Flickr.