There is a fascinating battle going on between Apple and Google. They were once very close – until a year or so ago Google had a couple of people on the Apple board. Now they are arm-wrestling for control of the next generation in consumer electronics.
The new battlefield, where most of the action is happening, is mobile – phones and tablets and whatever else they invent next. (I don’t think Stephen Conroy got the memo about that). Apple has built a walled garden. You can only use the iOS operating system on an Apple product and you must buy apps for it through the iTunes store. The iTunes store won’t accept apps that compete with its own products.
Google’s mobile OS, Android, is open source. Anyone can put it on a mobile device without charge and modify it. The Google Apps Market will list just about anything. Android has got the support of most phone manufacturers, other than Nokia and Blackberry. There are now many more phones being sold with Android than with iOS.
Apple has long believed in a walled garden. It is said that Steve Wozniak. who invented the Apple II and was the real technical brain behind Apple at the start, left after a dispute with Steve Jobs over that. When Jobs rejoined Apple in 1997 it had licensed its desktop OS to a few other companies. Jobs quickly bought back those licences.
Tim Wu’s book The Master Switch tells the story of information technology in the US, staring with the Bell system and the telephone. He traces what he calls “the cycle”. A technology starts out open – anyone can get into the business – and eventually one business or a small cartel gets control. This has happened with telephones, radio, TV and films, he says. Those in control fight to keep out competition – capture of regulatory agences often helps – and try to stop any disruptive technology that would change the game. I had not realized that FM radio was developed for RCA but RCA managed to stop it for nearly 20 years because of its near-monopoly in AM.
History never repeats itself exactly but all this is fairly similar to the Apple/Google battle.
I have no idea how it will play out. I used to be an Apple fanboy and still use several of its products. But Google is doing more interesting stuff. I’ve just bought a Google phone (Nexus S) and find it great fun. Not as elegant as my wife’s iPhone but I think it is pushing the technology faster.
The game might change if Jobs’s leave from Apple is permanent. Apple depends on a regular flow of innovative products from its own stable. Google is more a facilitator for other’s innovation. Jobs has been so dominating at Apple that it is quite possible that there is no one with his enterprise to take over. Plants don’t grow under the shadow of large trees and all that stuff.
Another thing I became convinced of after reading The Master Switch is that the government-owned NBN is very dangerous. Governments can rarely resist the temptation to fiddle in markets and with the NBN the government will have a big and very costly monopoly to protect.
If I am right and mobile is the next frontier, what’s the bet that the government won’t be in a hurry to allow LTE? It is already being installed in major cities in the US but is not even close here.