Clash of the titans: Apple, Google battle for the mobile Web

Today marks the beginning of the great Apple-Google war. Contrary to what some other people will write, it's not advertising competition but something more fundamental. This clash of the titans is about competing worldviews -- whether the future mobile Web will be about the browser or applications.

There have been skirmishes over these opposing worldviews, but Apple's iAd platform is finally a declaration of war -- not because it could compete with Google's search-based advertising platform but because it provides a better way for mobile applications to make money. Somebody has to pay for all those free mobile apps. Apple will offer developers the advertising platform and give them a 60-percent cut.

Worldviews Apart

Businesses fundamentally seek to make money, but corporate cultural worldviews determine the means. Terms like philosophy or principles are often overlooked by bloggers or journalists writing about corporations and competition among them. Perhaps these concepts are more the study of academics, but they shouldn't be. These operational principles overreaching corporate philosophies shape the worldviews the companies bring to the marketplace.

In December 2009 post "Google's 'Open' definition: Simply brilliant business, but is it evil?" I explained the differences between Google and Microsoft worldviews. Quickly recapping, Microsoft's model presumes that companies produce something and are paid for it. The thing produced belongs to the producer. By comparison, Google's so-called "open" model presumes everything should be free, around which third parties profit indirectly and from things they didn't necessarily create or control.

The Apple-Google worldview clash is similar but different. Like Microsoft, Apple's business is about platforms and applications. Google's business is about information and services. Apple profits directly from products it develops and sells to businesses or consumers. Google mostly profits indirectly from content or information someone else created. Its intellectual property is tied to the means, not the end.

In approaching the mobile Web, Apple leverages its strengths as an end-to-end hardware/software developer. By comparison, Google already offers services in the cloud via the browser. Apple's worldview is more applications-centric while Google's is more Web-centric. Apple wants to pull computational and informational relevance to applications, while Google seeks to shift relevance to the Web.

The Problem with Free is Free

Where these two worldviews clash is the mobile device, such as the smartphone. HTML5 promises rich Internet applications consumable in a browser, which favors Google's worldview and search-and-advertising business model. Mobile applications favor Apple, which tightly controls the hardware-software platform -- and applications development by the APIs it chooses to expose and the terms dictated to developers.

By comparison -- and only by comparison -- Apple's mobile platform is fundamentally more closed than Google's. Apple's platform is narrow, built around devices, software and services it controls. Google's platform is deep, with search and advertising services spanning the Web and an open-source mobile operating system (Android). Google has built a huge economy around search, keywords and advertising.

Until today, iPhone OS developers sold their applications or gave them away for free. The problem with free is free. How do developers make money from free stuff? There is no pervasive Google search and advertising economy on iPhone OS devices, because most of the activity takes place in applications not in the Web browser. Apple tightly controls the applications stack, which is a Google-free zone. With iAd, Apple will provide developers another way to monetize their applications, which will be more important to content publishers like the New York Times or to developers giving away stuff for free.

Apple is not interested in the browser-centric mobile Web, regardless of Safari's presence. During the Q&A following today's iPhone OS 4 event, Apple CEO Steve Jobs affirmed there would be no support for Adobe Flash or for Java. Their absence reflects Apple's app-centric approach. Flash and Java belong in the Web-centric world, and Flash is a developer platform. Apple doesn't want competition from another development platform on iPhone OS devices. The application-centric mobile Web keeps Apple in control.

Closed vs Open Approaches

In his April 2 post "Why I won't buy an iPad (and think you shouldn't, either)", Cory Doctorow astutely identifies what's wrong with Apple's mobile platform: It's closed. He writes about Apple's content lockdown:

For a company whose CEO professes a hatred of DRM, Apple sure has made DRM its alpha and omega. Having gotten into business with the two industries that most believe that you shouldn't be able to modify your hardware, load your own software on it, write software for it, override instructions given to it by the mothership (the entertainment industry and the phone companies), Apple has defined its business around these principles. It uses DRM to control what can run on your devices, which means that Apple's customers can't take their 'iContent' with them to competing devices, and Apple developers can't sell on their own terms.

From earlier in the post:

What does Marvel do to 'enhance' its comics [on iPad]? They take away the right to give, sell or loan your comics. What an improvement. Way to take the joyous, marvellous sharing and bonding experience of comic reading and turn it into a passive, lonely undertaking that isolates, rather than unites. Nice one, Misney.

By comparison, Google's worldview favors a more open approach to content, information availability and software and services development. The Google free economy (supported by search, keywords and advertising) has turned my industry, journalism, on its head (Man does that hurt!). But information remains free. Rich Internet Applications consumable in any browser are freely available. Software development and cloud services use more open standards and development tools. The majority of this kind of Internet, in its mobile form, is consumed in the Web browser -- even as applications' role increases on Android and competing handsets.

So, Apple and Google mobile device worldviews differ in two fundamental ways: Closed/tightly controlled versus more open/loosely controled and applications versus browser centricity.

Which platform wins remains uncertain, despite all the hobgoblining around from Apple defenders insisting it will be iPad/iPhone/iPod touch. There also are hints Google is directionally changing towards Apple. Google is unifying applications and services and offering more mobile apps for different mobile platforms. Google also is integrating apps and services around Android handsets. The winning platform, if one is to dominate will make lots of people rich. While I've focused here on Apple and Google as titans, Nokia is still the reigning mobile device maker by a huge margin, Research in Motion dominates the smartphone market and Microsoft is plotting a comeback. There are plenty of platforms in play, but Apple and Google are the most opposing.

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