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.
But both companies started to show what they would become early on, too. Jobs says that the most important class he took in college (before dropping out) was calligraphy. A designer at heart, he headed the team that launched the first Macintosh computer. As other members of the team worked nights and weekends to make the thing perform better, Jobs demanded tiny changes to the shell, tweaks to bits and bezels that the others could barely see. Beige and boxy as it may seem today, the Mac was a design revelation in 1984. It was the world’s first commercial computer with a screen that looked anything like the way yours does now.
Google’s DNA began to manifest itself early too. The fount of its ambition was Larry Page’s boast to an adviser that he was going to download the entire internet onto his computer. Buying and wiring together stacks of cheap generic computers was the key to making that happen: most outsiders don’t appreciate that Google is as much a feat of physical engineering as of software cleverness. It now handles a billion searches a day, and when did you last see it crash?
Both companies were the little guy once: Apple was David aiming his catapult at Microsoft, and Google was the second-mover hoping to topple the might of Yahoo! Both were so good that they became huge, which led them to clash swords as they moved into new products and fields. Today Apple and Google compete with their browsers (Safari and Chrome), photographic software (iPhoto and Picasa), e-mail (me.com v Gmail) and cloud computing (MobileMe v iGoogle). Apple’s iTunes is now the world’s biggest music store; Google is replying with Google Music. Apple, after being sniffy a couple of years ago, is selling e-books through iTunes; Google is quietly digitising every book it can get its hands on for Google Books. Google owns YouTube, the world’s biggest streamer of video, but Apple too (with iTunes, the iPad, iPod and Apple TV) has begun to see delivering moving pictures as a core skill. In April, Apple in turn went straight for Google’s financial core, launching iAd, a mobile-advertising platform.
The urge for growth has led both into public-relations disasters in China, an irresistible market and manufacturing heartland. Google submitted to the censors by tailoring its Chinese search engine for years, before publicly renouncing that policy in January 2010. Apple has squeezed costs by using Foxconn, the Chinese manufacturer that has such an unhappy workforce that it has installed nets below high windows, and has a boss who says “a harsh environment is a good thing”. With its “2 billion armpits to deodorise”, as marketers like to say, China has lured two American giants with purist images into tarnishing themselves. Now, the staggering scope of another emerging market of billions—handsets, not armpits—is finally bringing them to clash in the open.
Scott Adams, the creator of the Dilbert comic strip, writes a blog of pointed commentary, largely aimed at techies. Last year he depicted technology-tethered humans as de facto cyborgs: “If a cyborg can remove its digital eye and leave it on a shelf as a surveillance device, and I think we all agree that it can, then your cellphone qualifies as part of your body.” He sees the phone as an exobrain: “Your regular brain uses your exobrain to outsource part of its memory, and perform other functions, such as GPS navigation, or searching the internet. If you’re anything like me, your exobrain is with you 24-hours a day.”
If smartphones are going to be our exobrains, for the next few years at least, Apple or Google will be behind most of them. Expectations for Microsoft’s Windows Phone 7 are modest. Only BlackBerry, which makes a very different, work-centred device, is in the same league. No one else has anything like the wind behind Google’s and Apple’s backs.
Certainly, Apple and Google have the most distinct propositions for your exobrain. Apple’s system, however much it may be criticised for being closed, offers a set of sleek devices, a gleaming little family. The iPod, iPad and iPhone are all an extension of the Mac, turning photos, videos, music and movies into a single river of pleasure that we can dip into on the train, on the sofa or on the move. Because it has the same IOS operating system as the iPod and the iPhone, the iPad had hundreds of millions of potential customers who already knew how to use it. Apple’s exobrain offering is beautiful hardware and intuitive software that, most of the time, is even more of a joy to use than it is to look at.
The downside, the thing that Apple hopes you don’t think about, is that you are utterly in its hands: if you change your mind, there is no easy way out of Apple’s system. The tunes and movies you have bought from it can only be transferred from an iPod to third-party gadgets by a cumbersome workaround, and until recently even that was impossible. Apple’s offerings hardly ever let you down, but when they do, you are stuffed, left with sunk costs and a reputation as an Appleist that you would publicly have to disavow. The only carrier Apple originally offered its American iPhone users, AT&T, was loathed by many Apple fans, but they had nowhere else to turn. The lure of Appleism is such that most users didn’t mind that their iPhone was a lousy phone. Steve Jobs claimed that any network would have been overwhelmed by eager iPhone users, as AT&T’s was. He’ll soon have a better idea about that, as the iPhone finally gets a second carrier (Verizon) next year.
Google asks for a different brand of faith. You can choose your carrier, and your phone manufacturer. Independent app-makers will sweat night and day to get themselves on your phone without Google needing to cull them. As Android gets bigger, the collective wisdom of the internet and its users will make those apps better and better. Google itself asks for next to nothing. It won’t take money direct from your pocket, as Apple is delighted to do. Google doesn’t want to sell you your exobrain. It wants the contents.
Armed with those contents, it will charge someone else to serve you advertisements. They’re really quite small, are they not? Google made a promise to itself early on that all ads would be text-based and short. So long as you’re not bothered by the fact that they are tailored to you, you lose nothing.
The tailoring can be comical: a colleague who writes about cricket, and so tends to mention the Ashes, now finds his searches accompanied by ads for crematoria. But it can be more sinister than that. At a swanky party for a New York-based think-tank last year, I met an impressive, if cocksure, army major, a Green Beret and Iraq veteran. We chatted and exchanged cards, and I thought nothing of it. For a year afterwards, he popped up again and again in Google ads as I browsed the internet. He ran for Congress in Missouri, and I couldn’t escape ads asking me to elect him. I don’t live in Missouri, but somehow Google seemed to know that I’d met him.
Before they came to their clash in your pocket, Appleism and Googleism had both made big claims on your faith. Apple, quite simply, changed the way we think about gadgets. Cliff Kuang, a design editor for Fast Company magazine, says that in the past, when there was a new gadget, “one person in your family knew how to use it. That is something Apple completely changed. No longer is there an expectation that you’re going to have to learn to use an Apple product.”
Indeed, my new iPad came with no instruction booklet at all, no tangle of wires, no handful of drivers on cd-roms. The tight black cardboard box, itself engineered so that the top needed a little force to come off with a satisfying shhhhh, disclosed the iPad and a single cord. No wading through badly written orders. Just pick it up, peel off the plastic screen and press one button that whispered “Welcome. What would you like to do?” This ease is such that Jobs was probably onto something in defending AT&T: iPhone users, according to Consumer Reports, run five times more data through their phones than other smartphone users. Appleists aren’t fiddling with their Apple devices. They’re using them.
And, quite often, using them to google. It’s worth noting that “to apple” is not a verb. Just as we forget how impenetrable computers and gadgets were before Apple raised everyone’s game, we tend to forget that before Google, search engines were terrible. The big internet companies were expected to be portals—single web pages that helped you find media, shopping opportunities and weather forecasts while offering services like e-mail. But Yahoo!, AltaVista, Excite and the like couldn’t possibly organise the teeming millions of pages on the internet. Google obliterated the portal by uncannily finding the thing you were looking for and bringing it to, or near, the top of the first page of results every time. Google made the internet the internet, as we know it today. Before it came a series of gaudy homepages, dancing hamsters and misused first-mover advantages. Now, content people actually want rises, and rubbish lingers safely unseen on the fourth page of results. Pleasing Google’s algorithm has become mission-critical for retailers, entertainers and politicians, all climbing over each other to reach the top of those pages.
Apple, too, helps the best get bigger. iTunes has done more to invigorate music than any record company in the past 20 years. In February 2010, the ten-billionth song was sold on iTunes. In New York or London, Apple’s little white wires sneak from the ears of seemingly half of those riding the Tube or subway. But they haven’t changed the pattern of consumption—they have taken what it is, and made it more so. Downloading has boosted popular singles, just as it has dented albums. The average number-one single in Britain sold 60,000 copies a week in 2005, according to PRS for Music. Today, that figure is 93,000. Some had hoped that the cheapness of maintaining vast catalogues of music would boost the obscure and esoteric. The “long tail” theory, as advanced by Chris Anderson of Wired magazine, had it that while the top 20% of songs or books or whatever would account for 80% of sales, there were still rich pickings in the niches. But PRS for Music found just 2% of the offerings accounting for 80% of sales.
Whether it is Apple or Google doing it, helping the big get bigger is hardly a popular enterprise. But with the power these companies hold, no matter what they do they will be the targets of criticism. In a twist, Google is inching away from giving the entire internet a say in what rises to the top of a given user’s searches. Gradually, Google is customising results by geography, by the cookies already on a user’s computer, and even by the contacts in your Google account, if you have one. This, it hopes, will make search results more relevant. Some media-watchers argue that living in your own Google bubble is a threat to culture and even to democracy, as an individual user is never inconvenienced by surprises. So far, the search results are thought to vary only slightly from user to user. Eric Schmidt, it can be assumed, doesn’t find this creepy.
For all the evidence they are in a death match, there is still symbiosis as well as competition between Apple and Google. Plenty of us use Google and Gmail, iTunes for music, an iPod for the gym and an Android phone. Google is still the default search engine on an iPhone. And the Android tablets that are just beginning to appear will follow the iPad’s lead as much as Android phones did on the iPhone. The world on our screens is far bigger than two companies, as shown by Amazon with its books and e-readers, Facebook and Twitter with social networking, and eBay and Craigslist with their classified ads. Neither Apple nor Google has grabbed much, if anything, from that lot.
But Apple’s and Google’s war for the phone in our pockets is the biggest clash since Apple V Microsoft for the space on our desktops. By the end of 2011 smartphones will outsell ordinary phones, and by 2012 they will outsell PCs. Cloud computing may well replace the system whereby our photos, songs, documents and everything else lived on our own personal devices. At the same time, some observers expect search-based revenues to peak soon. One of those observers is Jobs, who says flatly that “on a mobile device, search hasn’t happened. Search is not where it’s at.” This leaves smartphone apps as the crucial gateway to the cloud —and Apple and Google chasing each other’s revenues by filling every corner of our lives with their working, browsing, listening, viewing and networking options.
Their approaches are clearly distinct. And while competition may make both better, it is hard to see both succeeding equally, the world evenly split between the perfectionist, sleek and controlling approach of Apple, and the experimental, fast-moving and open ways of Google—the small choice of flawless devices made by Apple, and the vast array of Android phones guided by Google. Will the Facebook generation, oblivious to privacy concerns, give the win to Google? Will those who have grown up expecting devices that just work tilt the field for Apple? In the answer lie not just billions of dollars, but the way we experience the world around us.
Pro: The first successful tablet computer. Great for surfing, reading, films and games
Con: Yet another thing to lug around. Flash doesn’t work, and memory is pricey
Pro: Amazing, pin-sharp screen, fast processor, multitasking. The best iPhone yet
Con: Antenna problems have caused dropped calls for some. You’re breaking up!
MacBook Air 11"
Pro: New design is even thinner and lighter, with Flash storage instead of a hard disk
Con: You could buy four netbooks for the money (from £849). And you can’t upgrade the RAM
Pro: Clever idea: adding a social network to a successful music store (iTunes) to boost sales
Con: It’s fiddly and few artists have signed up. Apple’s response, a tie-up with Twitter, needs to work
Pro: Saves time by showing you search results before you’ve even finished typing
Con: You are now even more likely to be sidetracked while searching
Pro: Cutting-edge collaboration tool combined e-mail, wikis and instant messaging
Con: Too clever for its own good, too slow and too complex. So Google canned it
Pro: Great to be able to see what it looks like where you’re going, before you get there
Con: Accidental collection of Wi-Fi data landed Google in trouble with privacy watchdogs
Pro: The fastest-growing smartphone operating system, heading for world domination
Con: Tends to lack the consistency, polish and integration of Apple’s devices
~ TOM STANDAGE
Robert Lane Greene is an international correspondent for The Economist and is writing a book about the politics of language around the world. Picture credit: Richard Rockwood (illustration), Ed Yourdon (via Flickr)