Lunes  14 de Junio de 2010

Spaces invader

As Google moves further on to the territory of Apple and Microsoft, a clash of visions is developing that could define the online experience for up to a decade.

It is likely to be business as usual today when Steve Jobs takes the stage in San Francisco to show off the fourth generation of Apple’s groundbreaking iPhone. The black sweater and jeans, the enthusiastic crowd hanging on every word, the “One more thing” at the end as the Apple boss drops an extra surprise the formula has become a part of consumer marketing lore.

At least one thing, however, will be different. For the first time since early 2007, when the iPhone turned the mobile handset industry on its head, there is real competition in the air.

Google’s success in breaking into the smartphone world with its Android operating system has been nothing short of remarkable. Barely 18 months after the first handset carrying its software was introduced, the internet company has become the clear challenger in the new category of web-enabled touchscreen devices pioneered by Apple.

The second act in this drama is now under way. Apple has sold 2m iPads since the launch of these larger-screen objects in late April, though Google and others are in hot pursuit. The same software platforms are also being adapted for television sets, with Google last month announcing a version of Android for a new generation of “smart” internet-connected TVs. The expectation is widespread that Apple will soon follow with a revamped version of its own internet TV technology.

This widening confrontation has pitted two companies with very different technology approaches and philosophies against each other. It is a clash of visions that could define the technology industry for the next decade and shape the way in which hundreds of millions of people experience the online world.

Google has not been shy of late about demonising Apple a company that had been a close ally. The link between them was sealed with the prime positioning accorded to Google’s services on the first version of the iPhone. But the love-in is clearly over. Last month Vic Gundotra, one of Google’s top mobile executives, went as far as to summon up an Orwellian vision of the future represented by Apple. “We faced a Draconian future, a future where one man, one company, one device, one carrier would be our only choice,” he told an audience of software developers. “That’s a future we don’t want.”

Recent sales figures help to explain why Googlers like this are feeling emboldened. According to NPD, a market researcher, sales of phones running Android software overtook sales of iPhones in the US in the first quarter of this year though both lagged behind the BlackBerry. Worldwide, Android should overtake both the iPhone and the BlackBerry within three years to become the second most widely used smartphone software behind Symbian, according to IDC, another research group a reflection of the fact that many companies are making devices that use the Google software.

Mr Jobs, for his part, has taken to acting the part of the wounded friend who has been on the receiving end of an unprovoked attack. “They decided to compete with us,” he said last week at the All Things Digital technology conference in California. “We didn’t go into the search business.”

Much more is at stake here than a few points of market share in smart-phones. Two rival notions of the future and commercial imperatives are taking shape that offer very different outcomes for internet users.

Google is counting on devices that are open to the web hardly surprising, given that its mission in life has been to organise all the world’s information, then sell advertisements against it. Using its free open-source software, it has sought to extend its reach to as many handsets as possible to ensure a large audience for its search service.

Apple’s handsets, by contrast, are vertically integrated products designed above all to make technology easier and more pleasurable to use. Those experiences come wrapped in sleek aluminium and glass cases, physical manifestations of Mr Jobs’ perfectionism that command premium prices.

The cost of that perfectionism is a more closed technology approach. Apple vets the applications that run on the common software underpinning its iPhone, iPad and iPod Touch. It also bars some common technologies that are common on the internet, like the Flash software that powers much current web video an approach that offends technology purists and leaves it open to attacks such as that by Mr Gundotra.

One of the greatest surprises, as this battle takes shape, is that the dominant technology company of the past two decades finds itself so far behind in the new markets with the greatest potential. Microsoft’s control of the personal computer may be unshaken but it has missed out on the last cycle of smartphone software. Steve Ballmer, its chief executive, conceded as much last week at the All Things Digital conference.

Microsoft is also now at risk of “frittering away” a strong early position on the TV set, says Ken Dulaney, an analyst at Gartner. “They seem to be last on a number of fronts they’re letting Google take it away from them,” he adds.

Apple and Google are doing their best to nudge Microsoft faster down the road to oblivion. As the FT reported last week, Google is phasing out the use of the Windows operating system among its own workers an indication of its concern about the software’s vulnerability to internet hackers, as well as its determination to prove that a large modern company can be run only on internet-based software.

Mr Jobs followed up later in the week with a declaration that Windows-based PCs were in permanent decline, as users turned to the new forms of computing using less heavy-duty software.

Mr Ballmer, needless to say, had other ideas. The iPad itself was nothing more than a type of PC, he said, adding that the general-purpose PC “will continue to morph” into a range of new form-factors like this. It was an attempt to redefine the forces shaping personal computing in a way that, by implication, left Microsoft at the centre.

The momentum, though, is with Apple and Google. To capitalise on it, both need to adapt. In many ways, that means mastering the skills of the other. So far, the particularities of the smartphone market have played to Apple’s strengths. With small screens unsuited to internet browsing, it took Apple’s fanatical attention to usability to bring internet-connected devices to the masses.

Apple made this possible through a combination of the touch-screen interface and the “app” a small piece of downloadable software that launches an application and can draw information from the internet without the user having to open a browser.

Though its preference is for services accessed directly over the internet, rather than pieces of “client” software such as this, Google was forced to follow suit. But its online store has only about 50,000 apps, one-quarter of the number available from Apple, and Mr Jobs is now out to prove that the same approach will work on the larger screen of the iPad.

Some technology executives argue that moving to bigger screens will dilute the power of Apple’s approach. Jeff Weiner, chief executive of LinkedIn, a social network for professionals, says there is less need for easy-to-use apps. More users are likely to demand the full internet, undiluted by Apple’s controls.

The world of internet-connected TVs presents a bigger challenge. Apple has failed here before, and Mr Jobs has taken to calling this nothing more than a “hobby” for the company. The TV set is a place where Apple is at a clear disadvantage to Google, says Mr Dulaney. The owners of TV shows and films are more likely to adopt open-source distributed systems like those built by Google, in preference to the more centralised approach favoured by Apple that leaves it with greater control, he says.

Last week, Mr Jobs also said it had been hard to make money from internet TV because many viewers had become accustomed to being given their set-top boxes by their cable or satellite provider and were unwilling to pay technology companies for extra devices. He once said similar things about the mobile phone business, however, before finding a way to break into that market.

As it adapts to this new world of smart, connected devices, Apple is in some ways starting to follow in Google’s footsteps. Later this year it will launch its own advertising network, called iAd, giving it an extra way to make money from the services and content carried on its systems. But even if it succeeds with a purpose-built network designed to support the apps that run on its devices, it is still a long way from creating the sort of broad-based advertising platform that underpins Google’s fortune.

Google, meanwhile, has had its own struggles in adapting to the new world of smart devices. Most obviously, it has lacked Apple’s consumer marketing know-how, relying on hardware partners to sell its technology.

Where it has tried to break new ground with consumers, it has failed spectacularly. Its first attempt at a Google-branded handset, called the Nexus One, was launched amid much fanfare this year, along with an online store designed to give the sort of direct connection with consumers that Apple has through its physical stores. The phone sold badly and the store was closed after only four months in an uncharacteristically fast about-turn for a company that usually allows even unsuccessful experiments to linger.

Google is rushing to get beyond the world of apps ushered in by Apple, towards a category of devices more suited to its own technology preference: ones that are built exclusively to channel internet services. The result is a second Google operating system, called Chrome OS, which is due to make its debut later this year.

The risk, according to the company’s critics, is that backing different horses in this way will divide Google’s efforts and weaken its attempt to put its stamp on the personal computing world. “Why do two?” Mr Ballmer asked last week. “Why not focus on one? Having two [operating systems] is confusing you need coherence.”

Such niceties do not seem likely to slow the headlong race between Google and Apple. It is turning into a rivalry that will shape the next phase of personal computing.

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