11 October 2011 by Published in: iphone, rants 1 comment

By now, you’ve certainly heard about Siri.  It’s a very cool piece of tech.  So cool, in fact, that I think it represents a big leap for Apple.

The narrative we got from Phil Schiller is that for years, the programmers have taunted users with the dream of voice recognition technology that actually works, and this time Apple is going to deliver.  Generally speaking, Apple does’t brag about questionable features with that level of conviction.  So it’s safe to assume they’ll actually deliver.  In spite of the fact that they’ve slapped a beta label on it.

The interesting bit about Siri is that Apple is now going for the crown jewels of Google’s empire–search.  While Siri covers a lot of ground–playing secretary and scheduling your meetings–an entire class of behaviors is answering questions that formerly you would ask of Google.  What is the capital of Nepal?  How far away is the sun?  Currency and unit conversion.  You know, core Google activities.

The interesting part about this is that all the pieces have been there all along.  Google already has a voice search application–that got all the way to 1.0, but like a lot of Google projects, seems to have been aborted when the engineers lost interest.  Wolfram Alpha, the brains behind some of the Siri tech, has been around forever, and is easily small enough for a company like Google to acquire them.  And why doesn’t Google have a version of Alpha already as a Google 10% project?  After all, this is a lot better match for Google than the various laundry list of bizarre projects (e.g. Dart) that Google is involved in.  Not to mention at any point it could have acquired the Siri company itself.  At no time did Google want in the game badly enough to take action.  And now Apple has a product that is easily the best mobile search experience anywhere–competing directly on Google’s home turf.

It’s not the first time.  Apple launched MobileMe in 2008, which competed directly with GMail and the rest of the Google Apps suite.  Back then, things didn’t go so well.

“Can anyone tell me what MobileMe is supposed to do?” [Having received a satisfactory answer…] “So why the f*** doesn’t it do that?” – Steve Jobs

At the time, their datacenter and server software stack was awful.  But they learned.  I’m sure iCloud will have a lot of problems in terms of functionality, but it’s going to be a rock solid rollout.  Apple’s not going to make the same mistake again.

After the MobileMe fiasco, Apple entered another core Google market:  advertisement.  It’s very difficult to assess Apple’s success with iAd.  The bookends that we have are that it’s not losing money, and it’s not instantly making every developer rich, which leaves a lot of area in the middle.  It’s definitely a very odd, high-end advertising experience that is difficult to compare to other mobile ad networks.  Apple has continually been cutting buy-in fees, which may indicate a troubled service, but at the same time, it’s not in the same category of failure as MobileMe.  The reality is a little boring.

So here’s the thesis so far:  Apple is really bad at trying to be Google, but they’re working on it, and they improve with each iteration.  And what’s more, today, Google and Apple compete on virtually every front.  Consider:

  1. iPhone vs Android
  2. iWork (now that it has iCloud) vs GDocs
  3. MobileMe / iCloud Mail vs Gmail
  4. iTunes Match vs Google Music Beta
  5. iBookstore vs Google Bookstore
  6. iAds  vs AdMob / AdSense
  7. MobileMe Calendar vs Google Calendar
  8. MobileMe Contacts vs GMail Contacts
  9. iOS App Store vs Android App Store
  10. Mac App Store vs Chrome App Store
  11. Apple IAP vs Google’s IAP
  12. iPhoto vs Picasa
  13. Find My Friends vs Dodgeball / Latitude
  14. NewsstandKit vs Google News
  15. Twitter integration vs Google+ service
  16. Reading List vs Google Reader
  17. Apple’s crazy datacenter tech vs Google’s crazy datacenter tech
  18. Siri vs. Google Search
The only really significant omission on this list is Apple’s answer to Google Maps.  They’re working on something awesome here.  Very uncharacteristically, they’ve actually admitted to as much, not to mention their acquisition of both PlaceBase and Poly9.  It’s a done deal.
So today, Apple competes more with Google than not.  In hindsight, the reason that Eric Schmidt left the Apple board of directors is suddenly much clearer than it was back in 2009.
What’s more, if you look down the competition list, you will see that more than half of Apple’s offerings were introduced within the last 12 months.  So while the talked-about points of competition are iOS vs. Android, in fact pretty much everything is a point of contention at this point.  And Apple is moving into many more of Google’s markets than Google is moving into Apple’s.  In other words, Apple is really serious about this.
Which is why Google is buying Motorola and getting into the hardware business, in spite of the fact that it’s a really bad idea.  It’s not enough anymore for Google just to play to its strengths.  Tim Cook isn’t sitting around sticking to what Apple is good at.  Google needs to compete with Apple on its own turf–device manufacturing.  Even if it’s as terrible a marriage as MobileMe was on its first launch–which it probably will be.  Maybe Google can iterate.
Now I’m showing my bias here–but I think it is easier for Apple to get good at cloud services and search than it is for Google to get good at hardware production.  The primary difference is that both Apple’s software and hardware teams are stellar–whereas Google is a stellar software company that acquired a mediocre manufacturing department.  My experience working for a major hardware manufacturer opened my eyes to how difficult modern manufacturing is and how different it is from the software engineering skillset.  Without that world-class hardware team, I don’t think Google can pull it off.  There’s an argument, of course, that Google doesn’t have to–that the developing world that can’t afford Apple is a much bigger market.  But very shortly, they may find themselves constrained to that market, if they don’t take the right steps very swiftly.
The other difference I see in my interactions with the two companies is focus and vision.  The thing I’ve noticed about Apple employees again and again is how serious they are about what they do.  Apple is less a company and more a calling.  People work sixteen hours days and seven day weeks, they keep coming to work years after they are fired, and they really and legitimately believe the marketing message about pushing the world forward.  Googlers, on the other hand, are more laid back, easygoing, less concerned with crunch weeks, and more closely follow the “absent-minded-professor” stereotype.  In other words, incredibly bright people who are less warriors and more scientists.  It’s OK if we have a few failed products, because that’s science!  This is not Steve’s philosophy, to put it mildly.  It is also no way to build a hardware business.
So I am concerned about Google’s long-term viability.  Google’s strategy at this point seems to be “Put a lot of smart people in a room and see what happens,” which has brought us both GMail-level successes combined with Wave-grade failures–in other words, mixed results.  Meanwhile, Apple has an army of equally skilled developers that also know why they are coming to work, that appear hell-bent on competing with Google at almost every layer of the stack, that are moving a lot faster than a company Apple’s size has any right to move.  I hope Google has something up its sleeve, because from my vantage point it looks like the tide is about to turn.

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  1. Wed 12th Oct 2011 at 12:11 am

    Good insight that makes me more likely to to buy into more of the Apple stack in the future.

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