If you jump back a few years, to the days when Apple and Google were starting to wrong foot each other more publicly, it was pretty safe to assume the public perception – and the tech one as well – was that Google was a search and email giant with a few (dozen) web apps, which were of varying quality; while Apple was the (perhaps overpriced) purveyors of higher quality, well designed fashionable hardware.
These stereotypes aren’t fair on either side of the fence, of course – Google had a lot more going for it than search back then (and of course now, too) and Apple had set up one of the most popular digital services of all time (iTunes). None the less, there was a clear distinction in people’s minds between what the two companies offered, even if it wasn’t entirely accurate.
In the last couple of years, however, both Google and Apple have been starting to quite noticeably take on each other’s publicly perceived “core business” (okay, Apple isn’t getting into advertising and direct web search but you know what I mean).
Google began to use the Nexus range of phones (and then tablets) as more than just a standard bearer for vanilla Android – they began to sell them direct to the public from the Play Store. In fact, while we’re on the topic, the Play Store itself has more than begun to compete with iTunes on every front (TV, magazines, movies, books, etc) – with varying degrees of success (in some case very effectively).
At the same time, Apple very loudly ousted Google Maps from the iPhone and tried to work around Google Search with Siri; with very little success indeed. They’ve continued to try to build iCloud as an alternative service to many Google offerings (or any other popular competitors, such as DropBox) and they are continuing to work with their own email accounts, as well.
However the key takeaway from this corporate battle isn’t that Apple and Google are trying to eat each other’s lunch – that’s a given – it’s that fairly consistently, when you look across the product spectrum of both companies, Google is getting better at Apple’s core business much faster than Apple is getting better at Google’s core business. And it’s not just me saying – when John Gruber of Daring Fireball (who is effectively a thinly-veiled-but-not-directly-paid PR arm of Cupertino) admits Google is beating Apple at something, you know it’s reached the point where it can no longer be denied.
We can see evidence of this most recently in the very popular Nexus 4, 7 and 10 range of devices – and now the Google Chromebook. What reviews are consistently saying about these devices is that the design and build quality of them is equal to Apple’s – that Google is taking such care with the quality of the hardware that even the (somewhat mythical but somewhat true) build quality of Apple is no longer a distinguishing factor between the two. Many Apple fanbois are even admitting that the latest push through ICS and Jellybean brings Android into similar software design polish with iOS (something we here at Android Analyse would argue Android long surpassed iOS in, anyway).
In fact the beauty of what Google is doing with the Chromebook Pixel is that (as long as your pockets are deep enough and I am sure Google’s are), it doesn’t even need to be a commercial success. It’s a shot across Apple’s bows showing the World that Google is capable of making and bringing beautiful hardware and software together; just like Apple can – and a reminder that Apple can’t do what Google can do. It’s a step towards changing public perception of Google to a point where eventually, they become a go-to company for consumer devices.
However with all the talk about “Google getting better at what Apple does faster than Apple getting better at what Google does” (and there’s a lot – go Google it (or Siri it if you will)), I am yet to see people talking about why this is, in real terms – and I’d like to put forward my theory about why it’s happening so fast.
Because – and forgive me for saying this if you’re a designer – design is a lot easier to do than building a reliable, highly interconnected, powerful and scalable web service from the ground up. Now don’t get me wrong – I am not saying good programming or good engineering is harder than good design (although I’ll admit the Engineer in me badly wants to say this) – I am saying that good design or good programming of web services is meaningless without the back-end data to back it up. There’s absolutely no doubt good design is hard work and a real talent and skill – but it’s still fundamentally the work of either a small team or one guy (Johnny Ives at Apple for example) and it’s still fundamentally related to a single project or moment in time. Design teams don’t require a decades worth of ground work to be laid before they begin (yes, they can build on existing look and feel but it’s not the same thing).
This is the fundamental weakness of Apple’s, which Google is now starting to exploit – and hard. Getting great design is about getting one or two really good designers into the organisation and really, truly giving them free reign. You can’t simply stick an ad in the paper for a couple of guys and build your own mapping solution, as Apple found out to their own peril, last year. That kind of system requires a huge team of very, very intelligent people but even more than that – it requires an enormous back catalogue of really well stored and indexed data – you simply can’t pop out and aqui-hire your way to competing with Google’s database collection – but you can aqui-hire yourself some really top shelf designers.
A great example is Siri. Apple didn’t make Siri – they bought out a small company who was selling it on the iTunes App Store. Then they injected some pro-Apple advertising into the results and told everyone what a game changer it was. It disappointed, badly and was largely rubbished by reviews. Amazingly shortly afterwards, Google came out with their own in-house version: Google Now – to almost universally positive reviews. Why? Not because Siri was less pretty than Google Now (although in my opinion, it is) but because Google Now gives meaningful results to your queries and knows a hell of lot more about your day to day activities than Siri does. Google Now is actually useful and widely used; while Siri remains a gimmick that virtually no one actually uses.
The reason Google was able to get one up on Apple so quickly isn’t because they had better programmers on the Google Now team than the people who made Siri – it’s because Google Now has access to information about both its user and the World at large that Apple could only dream about and can’t be collected in a short time.
This is why the positive reviews for the design and build quality of the Chromebook Pixel have Apple (and their pseudo marketeers) so worried. As the public perception of Google shifts from being a techy company who make cheap plastic stuff with smart software, to being a company who makes first class products, Apple really has nothing left to distinguish itself upon – and they know that in the web services race, no one can catch up to Google, anytime soon.