One is a gadget-maker, the other a search engine—but now they are at odds. Robert Lane Greene on a clash of cultures ...

From INTELLIGENT LIFE Magazine, Winter 2010

When Apple opened a new store on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan in 2006 it received an unusual complaint. Not the usual New York variety—you’re blocking the view I paid good money for, or you’re gentrifying the neighbourhood I just discovered. No, this new flagship store was criticised by an Islamist website. The steel-and-glass cube, the zealots complained, was meant to invoke the obsidian cube at the Kaaba in Mecca, and insult Islam.

The story was ridiculous—it was one extremist website (albeit a big one), and the clever fanatics running it had only seen the cube with a black tarp over it, while it was under construction. A number of New York Muslims stood up to say that they loved the new store. But it isn’t insane to call Apple’s stores Meccas. Beautiful inside and usually outside too, they are temples to devotees of Apple’s gorgeous products. Unlike most gadget-makers, Apple sells more than sleekly designed toys. It sells a way of life and a way of being. Call it Appleism.

Appleism isn’t quite a religion, but it features an almost godlike leader, Steve Jobs. And he even came back from the dead—fired by the board in 1985, he was rehired after a slump in 1997, and revived Apple’s fortunes. Many fans view Apple with devotion: Tony Curtis, who died in October, was buried with his iPhone, like a pharaoh anxious to update his Facebook status from the afterlife.

With any faith, it is fun to focus on the fanatics, but not very illuminating. On a recent trip to the Fifth Avenue store, not many faces fitted the stereotype of Apple partisans as hip, rich, Western youth. There was a man who looked like a diplomat with the United Arab Emirates’ flag on his lapel. A gaggle of teenage boys from Brazil horsed around in Portuguese. A red-haired youngster put down his Good News Bible to play an online game called “Combat Arms”. A middle-aged couple used the Bed, Bath & Beyond website. Apple’s success has transcended the asymmetrical-jeans-and-black-framed-glasses market. It is now a movement for the masses.

Inside the store, most of the devices could be picked up and played with instantly. This is a smart move by Apple: it must wear out a lot of inventory, but it hooks the would-be buyer, and makes every store a hang-out, like the record shops of olden days. Only one place was inaccessible, thanks to the two-deep crowd that surrounded it: the iPad table.

The iPad, the tablet computer Apple launched in April, has been a phenomenon, selling 7.5m units in six months despite early scepticism, despite a $500 price-tag for the version with no 3G connectivity, despite the fact that it does little that other devices (e-book readers, games consoles, Apple’s own iPhone) didn’t already do. The iPad was Apple’s typically bold bet that it can create a brand new class of thing and people will gobble it up, almost because it was made by Apple. Apple, which stopped calling itself “Apple Computer” in 2007, now has three signature devices that are not Macs—the iPod, iPad and iPhone. It wants to be with you everywhere.

That brings it into conflict with another company that did not set out to make mobile gadgets, but which now wants to follow every step you take. Google began as a smarter way to find things on the internet; it is now a cloud of services that pervades every aspect of our lives. We google a good restaurant, google reviews of it on other websites, find it on Google Maps, google to check if the train is on time, and Gmail our friends to let them know we might be 15 minutes late. 

Increasingly, we may do all of these things on a smartphone powered by Google’s Android operating system. Google makes no actual phones itself. But as it has licensed Android to more and more phonemakers, it is, for a company that makes no gadgets, the biggest competitor to the world’s most successful gadget-maker.  Google has taken a big bet on making Googleism something we walk around with too.

It wasn’t always so. Only a year or two ago, Apple and Google were so comfortably different that Google’s chief executive, Eric Schmidt, was able to sit on Apple’s board (from 2006 until 2009). “Steve [Jobs] and I are very close personal friends,” Schmidt said this summer. “I believe he’s the best CEO in the world by any measure.” Their companies could have been a match made in heaven: Apple’s gorgeous devices running Google’s miraculous services. But smartphones proved too attractive for Google to leave the field to others. Android is now the bestselling smartphone system, after passing sales of the iPhone late in 2010. Jobs implied that Google had violated a tacit division of turf, pointing out at a conference in June, “we didn’t go into search” and “we’re not going into search”. Radiating self-belief as usual, he told the same audience that he would not be removing Google searchboxes from Apple’s devices, saying “right now, we have the better product”. 

The two companies have taken entirely different approaches to the mobile war. Apple’s Apple-made devices allow only Apple-approved applications (apps) on the handset. By contrast, now that it has moved into the phone business, Google gives Android away—it does not sell it—to be installed on dozens of phone models made by a host of phonemakers, including Sony, Motorola, Samsung, LG, HTC and others. Android’s code is open, and the phonemakers can tinker with it to suit their needs (though Google tries to maintain a basic set of standards, so that an app built for one Android phone will work on another). And anyone who can create an Android app can get it into Google’s Android Market, the equivalent of the App Store. Apple is gorgeous but far more sealed and controlled. Eric Schmidt talked about the difference in July when he visited The Economist in London. “Google has a completely different world model,” he said. “The Apple view is coherently closed. Ours is the inverse model: the web, openness, all the choices, all the voices. And that experiment is running.”

It’s an old trick to make the boss of a company a symbol of its culture, but these two make the temptation irresistible. Jobs, the undisputed leading light of Apple, is a superior, difficult control freak who disdains the press, unless he is instructing his public-affairs team to leak a story, or holding a grandiose press conference. He wears the same thing every day (a black mock-turtleneck and Levi’s 501 jeans), just as Apple’s toys come in a small and carefully compatible variety. Apple under Jobs has barely ever released a dud product.

Google, by contrast, has no Jobs, but a quirky triumvirate of Schmidt, the CEO, and Larry Page and Sergey Brin. Page and Brin are Stanford graduate-student nerds of a typical California vintage who remain on staff to animate Google’s innovation, while leaving the running of the company day-to-day to Schmidt, a suit-and-tie CEO. Google makes its money learning about you from your e-mail, your internet searches and your phone, and then selling that information to advertisers. Its founding mantra was “Don’t be evil”, something its staff still take seriously. But Schmidt seems to have a new standard: “Don’t be creepy”. He startled commentators in 2009 by saying, “If you have something that you don’t want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place.” Apparently trying to allay fears that Google has no boundaries, he tried again in late 2010. “Google policy is to get right up to the creepy line and not cross it,” he said, apparently unaware that this is about the creepiest thing the boss of an omnipresent technology company can say.

Google, a herky-jerky place compared with Apple, tends to put something out there and see what happens. Gmail, its hugely successful e-mail system, was released to the world in beta (ie, testing) mode and stayed that way for years. Google Wave, a wildly complex e-mail, messaging and collaboration tool, was taken up by few. Google Buzz, a social-networking site, was a privacy disaster because it made users’ frequent contacts publicly available. Such is the product cycle of a place that encourages staff to spend one day a week on personal projects, and glorifies the hacking, see-what-happens approach of the nerd over the exquisite work of the designer.

As different as they have become, Google and Apple sprang from the same soil: California’s Silicon Valley. Tales from both companies suggest that many of the engineers and programmers at one could have worked at the other: Apple’s Mac-builders playing Nerf-ball tag in the offices in the early 1980s could have been Google’s founders building server racks from Lego in the late 1990s. The sheer number of companies created and destroyed in the Valley, perhaps the world’s most innovative place, encourages a “don’t tell me it’s never been tried” attitude that has driven both Apple and Google.