Apple vs Google: it’s all about who pays
December 17th, 2009
Daniel Eran Dilger
Pundits think there’s a war between Apple and Google over smartphone (and perhaps netbook) platform technology. They’re wrong, here’s why it’s really all about who pays.
After witnessing Microsoft lose round after round in contention with Apple (the ISO’s selection of QuickTime vs Windows Media’s AAF as the container for MPEG 4 in 1998, the iPod vs Windows Media Player vaporware in 2001, the iTunes Store vs PlaysForSure by 2004, Mac OS X Tiger vs Vista in 2006, the iPhone vs Windows Mobile in 2007), it hasn’t been much fun to pit Microsoft against Apple. It’s almost as if the big bad monopolist that held back technology for fifteen years is now some underdog that must be coddled, rather than the invincible pit bull that pundits loved to bet on.
It also gets tedious to try to string along a pretense of excitement about such duds as Surface and the vaporware dreams of a year or two out: Project Natal, Windows 7 SP1, and Windows “we’re getting serious now” Mobile 7, while still maintaining a straight face. So the pundits are now pouncing on Google to save them from Apple.
After all, who doesn’t like Gmail? It’s free! And Google’s new aggregator and online Docs apps and YouTube and of course web search. Google gives everything away for free. Now its getting into smartphones with Android and netbooks with next year’s Chrome OS. If you like free stuff, this gets even better with the new buzzphrase “less than free.” Essentially, Google is expected to be paying hardware OEMs to use its software via ad revenue sharing.
Why Google is so much better than Microsoft
If Apple had a tough time keeping up with the onslaught of PlaysForSure media players from Samsung and Motorola and Creative and Toshiba, or the Windows Mobile phones from LG and Sony Ericsson and HTC, imagine how difficult it will be now that Microsoft’s role has been replaced by Google, with the community doing all the heavy lifting and ads supporting everything financially.
Surely the ecosystem around iTunes and the advantages of Apple’s retail stores and global brand will simply evaporate once people realize that the company they use for web search is now making a distribution of Linux for smartphones and other devices.
All that spectacular hardware designed to work with Windows Mobile now runs Android, and possibly even the latest version of Android. And best of all, these old devices running new software will be slightly cheaper for Samsung and Motorola (and so on) to license, perhaps even with embedded software that is cheaper than free!
Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain.
Never mind that Samsung and Motorola (and so on) all have more experience in developing software platforms than Google, and could do “even better than free” by using their own distro of Linux and leveraging their own adware and spyware to keep 100% of the revenue generated, rather than settling for a cut of Google’s ad income.
That’s exactly what Motorola was doing in between its Windows Mobile and Android strategies: Motorola’s own MOTOMAGX Linux distro. And that’s also why Samsung is now floating its own Bada Linux platform. Oh no, dissension in the ranks already. The official story is that everyone is supporting Android, when in reality it’s currently only HTC (the company that realized it would otherwise be left with nothing as Windows Mobile tanked) and Motorola (a complete failure of a company) and Sony Ericsson (Motorola’s ugly twin sister).
Forgive me for being skeptical, but how exactly does replacing Windows with Linux result in an awesome product? According to punditry, Google solves all the problems with Linux (usability issues, too many options leading to fragmentation) by providing a unified distro with a strong leader and money to make things happen. The problem is that Google is allowing Android to fragment into different versions and providing weak leadership in areas like security and hardware feature standardization.
Google isn’t doing Android out of open community altruism; it’s just using existing technologies and leveraging community efforts to advance its own adware platform.
The Android trap
People are supposed to throng to Linux for rainbows and unicorn farts, not because of filthy money. Yet Google’s whole plan is to use a specialized version of Linux to create platforms that are more locked down than Microsoft Windows. Chrome OS is designed to verify its kernel the same way Bill Gates’ Palladium fantasy did. And what happens after Google amasses control over the desktop with open software?
Well Google isn’t Microsoft, so it’s not doing it to force everyone to buy its software. Google sells ads. it wants everyone to have a single choice in ads and search and publishing, because the less competition, the less you have to pay your content producers hosting your ads, and the more you can demand from advertisers trying to get their message out. Once everyone uses Google for search and communication and operating system software, we’ll all be happily locked up behind an iron curtain made of wonderfully sweet candy.
Unless of course anyone wants to publish content that Google doesn’t want seen. Or sell online services that Google wants to provide itself. Those outliers will be thrown out of the paradise for daring to upset the authority of the Ad Search God.
Everyone in pundit land seems to be terrified that Apple will take over the world with its iPod and iPhone and Mac, but Apple’s products are easy to replace with alternatives. Nobody is locked into the iPod or iPhone or Mac. If they find a more competitive product, they can choose it instead. Plenty of pundits have been crowing about their public decisions to do just that.
Google isn’t selling a competitive product, it’s selling a new monoculture. Sure, the company hasn’t yet proven that it can take over Windows, but the core problem with the gushing accolades surrounding Android is that if Google is even moderately successful, we’ll end up with an awful lot of phones that only run Android. At some point, you’ll have the Windows monoculture problem: if you don’t like Android, you won’t have other options because every other vendor is also selling Android. You’ll be stuck with one platform, just like the PC over the last two decades.
If you don’t like Windows, you can’t just ditch it like the iPhone where you can pick one of several iPhone-killers. In the PC world, you have to deal with the fact that there really aren’t any alternatives to Windows. Of course, this worst case scenario might never occur because Android doesn’t seem to be holding together with just two or three major players involved (HTC and Motorola currently) and just a year of updates (1.6 vs 2.0 is already brewing, what happens in another year: another XP/Vista situation?).
In contrast, Chrome OS isn’t nearly as scary of a monoculture prospect; it simply makes HTML5 the platform, allowing “software” to run anywhere a modern browser will run: Windows PCs, Macs, iPhones, Android phones, the Palm Pre (presumably) and so on. That’s a legitimately open platform, although Google is still leveraging its dissemination to provide bonus kickbacks on ads to hardware partners who agree to push Google’s own proprietary adware along with it.
Adware vs iWare
And so the real issue isn’t iPhone vs Android or Mac vs. Chrome OS, as so many pundits have been and will be giddy to try to assert. The real showdown between Apple and Google will be (if it must be dramatized) the “war” between those who want cookie-registered ads to subsidize their software, and those who want to pay for content. Free vs. paid. Not so much a war as a choice. And it’s the kind of choices that need to coexist, not boil down to an all-or-nothing, mutually exclusive option.
Pundits seem to love the appearance of free. They flocked around rental music and castigated Apple for only giving users the option to pay per-download for songs. They love Hulu and other ad-supported video sites, and think iTunes is awful for only selling or renting videos on demand. Nobody seemed to think the Zune’s adware games were much of a match for the iPod touch App Store, but there are lots of pundits who think Android’s shareware community will whip together free alternatives to the iTunes App Store catalog.
There are some areas where freeware/adware are great. Google Maps has become essential on the desktop and on my mobile. I use Gmail, although I also pay for MobileMe. And I like to browse Google News for headlines. The problem is, ad support doesn’t support much. And what it does support isn’t usually that great. Unless you’re Google and have lots of money and lots of otherwise idle engineering talent and desperately need a place to stick your extra ads, you probably don’t have much valuable content worth supporting by ads.
Apple has clearly avoided adware, choosing instead to sell its software bundled with hardware (Mac OS X and Server), or as low cost suites (iLife, iWork) or as professional titles (Final Cut Studio, Logic) or as cheap App Store downloads, or as pay per use web services (MobileMe). Nowhere are there ads supporting any of these things. In iTunes, Apple resells third party content: music, TV, movies, and mobile software, all at prices those third parties would like to raise, if only they had the leverage to do so. iTunes provides access to free content (podcasts and Internet radio), but only as a convenience. Their availability in iTunes is not monetized by ads, even if podcasters and Internet radio podcasters are themselves.
Apple is all about micropayments, voting with your dollars, while Google is all about finding a sponsor to subsidize your services. This results in premium-oriented buyers flocking to Apple (explaining why the company sells the vast majority of all PCs over $1000) and why the freetards can’t stop defending Google, even when its really doing something bad. Sides have been picked, the war is on, and it really all has nothing to do with Apple’s products or Google’s offerings. It’s the division of freetards and those who want to drop cash on things that they deem worth it.
If you look at content in terms of quality, the best work comes via direct payment. American ad-sponsored TV is pretty much terrible. Even the Discovery Channel now makes you sit through a half an hour of ad interruptions to enjoy what amounts to five minutes of actual content. When content is “free,” producers work to get the most value out of it. On TV, that means stretching out productions into a game where the object is to keep you sitting thorough ad after ad.
On the web, it’s all about making you click through page after page of very little actual content surrounded by an increasing large amount of advertising. Or interstitial spots. Google is striving to find new ways to monetize content with relevant ads, which sometimes works very well (Maps) and sometimes just gets tedious and excessive (YouTube Flash ad overlays). The less value content has, the more likely it will be delivered as ad-supported, and the more ads there’ll be to support it.
Podcasts are pretty low in quality and broadcast TV is stretched awfully thin; pay per view content has far more value. Some of the best content is only available on premium channels like HBO. Or paid through socialist TV licensing taxes, like the BBC. There’s a reason why we have a maxim about getting what you pay for; ads simply don’t get you very much.
If this was all I had to say about it wouldn’t be that interesting
There’s more to the adware/iWare war between free content and paid content. Google is taking its free army into the territory of things once paid for with Android and Chrome OS. The press can’t get enough of this, but it’s really nothing new. This is just a big commercial backer stepping in behind Linux to give ad support to an otherwise bankrupt business model. It will be great if Google can deliver a free platform that serves needs (like netbooks) that are currently saddled with poor quality paid software (I’m looking at you, Microsoft).
But nobody seems to be catching the fact that Apple has fought against the populist tide of “common sense” to push direct payments in software and content. This is much bigger than anything Google is doing to advance free and open source software. That’s because swapping out a lowest common denominator, boring operating system that has a monopoly licensing business model (Windows) with a lowest common denominator, boring operating system that has an adware licensing business model is not really exciting stuff that changes the world.
What will change the world is giving the web a business model, one where content isn’t just strung across pages and crowded by Google ads, and where news isn’t aggregated together with sensationalism and astroturf to create a free bunch of worthless fluff standing in for journalism. Apple is embarking on a third major wing of content in the iTunes mansion, and it will change how everyone accesses information, whether Apple itself is successful or not. And there’s not much reason for thinking Apple won’t be successful.
The next article will outline what exactly Apple is doing to bring a new form of paid content to a marketplace and how this will counter the monoculture of free that has dumbed down the web, run real journalists out of business, and kicked off a culture of stupid that is spreading far faster than H1N1 and is far more destructive to the fabric of society.