Google I/O 2010 takes on Apple with PlaysForSure strategies
May 25th, 2010
Daniel Eran Dilger
Last week, Google’s I/O conference presented a look at the company’s future plans, exciting the base of its enthusiasts. But will Google’s intended strategies, patterned after Microsoft’s PlaysForSure, be as devastating to Apple as media pundits would like them to be? No, here’s why.
Google takes on Apple with Flash mobile beta
An awful lot of pundits would like us to think that there’s a huge backlash against Apple in play, just because they would like that to be happening. They see Google as the company to exploit this supposedly grassroots uprising, and saw the announcements at I/O to be evidence that Apple and its iPhone are about to be buried by its search partner and, increasingly, its new rival in a number of areas.
Google’s I/O turned out to include a lot of negative jabs at Apple, starting with snipes targeted at the iPhone’s cold shoulder to Flash (contrasted with Android’s warm reception to Adobe’s initial attempt to deliver its proprietary HTML alternative in a form for mobile devices). Google’s first example of “leapfrogging” Apple (in the words of Gizmodo) comes from saddling its fast new Android mobile browser with a Flash plugin that makes Apple’s year old iPhone 3GS faster overall than the brand new Nexus One, despite the latter’s significantly faster new CPU. Without Flash, Google could brag (at least for a couple more weeks) about having a speedier edge in mobile browsing. This is why, you’ll recall, Steve Jobs really does love Flash: it’s an albatross around the necks of all who target it.
It turns out that Adobe’s latest Flash Player mobile is indeed a battery taxing CPU hog that lames up the mobile web experience, just like Jobs said it was three years ago. The problem today is that three years have passed and Adobe still hasn’t solved the issues of trying to shoehorn a web plugin designed for fast, full screen, mouse-based Windows PCs into touch-based mobile devices with physical, thermal and performance constraints. Who, besides Jobs, programmers, engineers, product managers, and reasonably intelligent technology enthusiasts could see that was going to happen?
Many of the pundits who fit into none of those categories still have faith that Adobe will fix all the remaining problems real soon now, even as it also ports its Flash runtime to several other mobile platforms. Even Google has fallen for the trap of hailing Flash as a feature to cite competitively against the iPhone, despite the fact that having Flash only makes Android slower, clumsier, poorer performing, and more riddled with ads. It seems Google has actually leapfroggered Apple, right into traffic.
Google’s PlaysForSure TV
Also unveiled at I/O was Google’s answer to Apple TV: an effort to layer third party TVs with an adware platform built on top of Android. Google made no secret about its motivations, throwing around talk about the billions of dollars in TV advertising that it wants to capitalize on. But despite the ease of pitting them as dramatic competitors, Apple TV and Google TV have little in common; the former is Apple’s hardware-oriented placeholder designed to port iTunes content to the living room TV, while Google’s effort is an attempt to put a layer of software into hardware makers’ TV products so that Google can sell ad space somewhere else other than the saturated PC desktop it already pretty much monopolizes.
Jobs keeps calling Apple TV a “hobby” because the company hasn’t identified set top boxes as a market with lots of obvious potential, nor much low hanging fruit to grab. Unlike the expanding MP3 market that Apple sopped up with iPods, or the exploding smartphone market Apple inhaled with the iPhone, Apple TV sits in a niche where nobody has done all that well. The popular TiVo has been hemorrhaging cash for a long time; Microsoft’s Windows Media Center products couldn’t stand alone as a separate product and were folded into Windows for free; Vudu sold itself off to Walmart; and there are really no other great success stories in the field anywhere.
Apple didn’t market its box as a way to watch or record broadcast TV nor present current listings; Apple TV is supposed to be a “DVD killer,” allowing users to rent movies or watch iTunes content on their TV. This is a somewhat limited, emerging new market, and nobody has anything like iTunes in terms of selling and renting a broad range of media, from paid downloads to free podcasts. While people like to harp on Apple TV as a failure, it’s doing exactly what it was intended to do: address a limited market without costing Apple too much to deliver.
In contrast, Google TV is primarily an effort to add web browsing to TV, focusing on YouTube videos and Picassa photos with the ability to also run special Android TV apps developed for the new platform, including an Office document reader. How much value there will be in that is hard to imagine, given that those are the least popular things to do with Apple TV (sorry, but nobody really wants to watch YouTube on HTDVs, and Internet photos on TV are nice but not a killer app) and that Google lacks an iTunes of its own to sell or rent content. If users were really excited about browsing the web on their TVs, then WebTV might have done better, and the Wii and PlayStation 3 might actually be seeing some significant use as web browser clients, given that 105 million of them are out there.
Google TV seems primarily to be an effort by the company to first get its software installed and then hope there’s a sustainable business model that erupts afterward, much like the company’s existing smartphone strategy with Android. Both are patterned after Windows Mobile and PlaysForSure, platforms which Microsoft heavily subsidized in the hopes of someday discovering a way to profit from.
Contrast this with Apple’s iPod, iPhone, iPad and Apple TV strategies, which are all oriented around selling hardware. Microsoft and Google don’t sell hardware, so the point of their getting into consumer electronics is all based on the hope that they can replicate Microsoft’s Windows monopoly of software control over other company’s hardware, which the company pulled off in PCs but has failed to successfully replicate ever since in any other business.
Open advantages or just monoculture drawbacks?
Apple is often beaten up for not being as “open” as Microsoft was with Windows or as Google is being with Android. What the people who say that really mean is that Apple integrates its software and hardware into a single product, and that being “open” about installing software on a variety of hardware maker’s products is supposedly better for everyone involved. But that’s simply not true in reality; not in consumer electronics nor in any other industry.
Like the Windows PC, Android is riddled with excessive complexity and compatibility problems. To an even greater extent than Windows, elements of Android smartphones work differently across vendors, creating inconsistency in the user interface, leaving lots of users behind with old versions of software they can’t update, and making it far harder and less rewarding for developers to attempt to create native apps for the platform.
While Windows keeps getting cited as the holy grail that Google is trying to replicate in its Android phones and tablets and Google TVs, a better analog would be PlaysForSure. Microsoft talked a lot about openness and choice in describing why PFS was such a great model for delivering media players, but the reality was that this model only resulted in complicating things for users, leaving them with old versions of software they could not upgrade, and exposing conflicts between the hardware makers and software stores Microsoft was trying to corral together on its PFS platform.
The company finally admitted this when it produced the Zune based on the iPod model, which subsequently became more successful than any of the existing PFS products, even if the Zune wasn’t very successful overall. In consumer products, particularly mobile and embedded products, integration is far more important than it was in PCs. That’s why Apple won over all of Microsoft’s mobile efforts, and it’s also why Google hasn’t taken the market by storm over the past three years while Apple has with introductions of iPhones, iPod touches and iPads.
I/O featured a lineup of Apple competitors such as Sony showing up to explain why they don’t think they’ll remain beaten by Apple in the marketplace for much longer, thanks to the new third party Android-based Google TV software, as if Windows had given Sony a powerful presence in PCs, or as if licensing the Palm OS had given Sony a successful PDA business, or as if licensing the BeOS had enabled Sony to sell lots of eVilla Internet appliances.
Google TV is slated to arrive around the end of the year on a variety of third party hardware. Yet again, it looks like Google is rushing into busy traffic simply because it desperately needs new places to put its ads, rather than actually building out a sustainable business strategy as Apple is. This can only be good news for Apple, as Google TV isn’t really an Apple TV competitor (they don’t do the same thing, aren’t sold the same way, and aren’t mutually exclusive to users).
On the other hand, Google TV as an effort should keep the company mired in unproductive territory and serve as a distraction away from focusing on making Android a good platform for smartphones and tablets, something Google has been slow to deliver. Everyone keeps forgetting that Android isn’t really newer than the iPhone OS, it just hasn’t done nearly as well over the last three years. The problem is that there’s big money in smartphones, but not really much in smart TVs.
Google’s biggest news surrounded Froyo, Android 2.2. It includes a lot of features iPhone OS 3 doesn’t support, such as tethering. Oh wait, iPhone has been tethering globally for a year now. Apparently, Google will deliver software support for features rejected by carriers such as AT&T, and AT&T will simply jump to support Android in ways that it isn’t supporting on the iPhone for some reason. Perhaps the same kind of wishful thinking will magically allow Android phones to deliver WiFi sharing features without raising the ire of mobile companies in a way that Apple is naively believed to have failed to happen upon as a concept.
Either that, or Google is promising things it isn’t in a position to deliver.
Android 2.2 does deliver a variety of other fixes that bring the experience closer to last year’s iPhone release (such as the ability to update apps all at once, or load significantly sized apps onto the phone from Marketplace, both of which are rather severe limitations that have helped stifle the Android marketplace), while also adding things that are currently missing on the iPhone and are not likely to be addressed even in the upcoming iPhone OS 4 release (such as integration with Google features like voice recognition, Google Voice, Maps Navigation, and a native Latitude app).
However, Google isn’t talking as much about how Android 2.2 still doesn’t support Exchange in a way that’s useful to companies (this requires strong hardware-software integration, in this case hardware encryption support, not just a layer of hopeful symbiosis between DIY software and cheap Chinese knockoff hardware); nor explaining why Android’s poor battery life has been blamed upon third party developers rather than being managed by the platform itself (sort of like how Microsoft always blamed its stability and security issues on third parties rather than addressing the issues on the platform level); nor presenting why a poor beta of Flash that slows the browser down to a crawl is being promoted a key feature (despite Google’s reported interest in pushing open web standards).
Instead, we keep hearing that Android has surpassed the iPhone in every way, even though users are complaining that it delivers an inferior experience, it feels buggy and unfinished and inconsistent, and that commercial app development is nowhere near that of the iPhone. This sounds a lot like the pundit talk surrounding Windows 95, except in a universe where the Mac OS hadn’t sat immobile through nearly a decade of slow progress in features.
If or when Apple fails to deliver forward progress on the iPhone, we can expect Android to remove it from the leading position in smartphones, tablets and mobile software. But that certainly hasn’t happened yet, and as long as Apple continues to maintain its technical lead, it will have certain advantages over any monoculture platform that exists, whether that is Android, Symbian, or Windows Mobile.
A frog leaping into the fire in other efforts: VP8, mSpot
Other efforts announced by Google and portrayed as devastatingly competitive blows against Apple include the new VP8/WebM, a free codec positioned to replace VP3/Ogg Theora as the world’s free codec that works well enough to make it worth avoiding MPEG LA royalties. While pundits like to position VP8 in an Apple-Google rivalry between it and H.264, the reality is that Apple supports H.264 because it is the best video technology openly available to anyone who wants to license it, not because Apple owns or is otherwise somehow ideologically attached to it.
If VP8 delivered what Google promised it does, it would be a no-brainer for Apple to adopt it, just as if Flash actually delivered for mobiles what Adobe promised it would. The problem is that both Flash and VP8 have serious problems that their proponents are failing to acknowledge. Those drawbacks are so serious that Apple wants nothing to do with either. And both VP8 and Flash desperately need Apple’s support to become useful to mobile users.
Unless all these serious problems in both VP8 and Flash can be magically addressed within the next few months, and they simply can’t, there’s no way Apple will support them and no way they’ll become any more entrenched than they already are. You can’t effectively push a content platform, whether Flash or VP8, to mobile users while ignoring the 100 million iPhone OS users out there globally.
The next technology announced at I/O that pundits say is supposed pitted against Apple is mSpot, a cloud-based music streaming service Google acquired. Apple has been working on something similar for a while now, but appears to be having trouble lining up all of its music, TV and movie content providers. Google can’t do that any better than Apple, as it a) doesn’t have content provider partners, b) couldn’t get them to buy into its plans with any leverage as it doesn’t have any, and c) it doesn’t even have an iTunes or an iTunes Store. So this isn’t really a competitor to Apple at all, just another acquisition that Google is unlikely to ever profit from unless it successfully figures out a way to stuff the service with ad views somehow.
Steve Jobs says no to Google’s VP8 WebM codec
Chrome OS vs Android
Google also announced a Chrome web store, which will vend apps to Chrome browsers and Chrome OS devices. While it’s interesting to see if Google can replicate the success Apple has had (in selling native iPhone OS apps) in the world of paid-web sites, the more interesting thing to consider is whether Google is still focusing on Chrome OS as its tablet OS or if it will be pushing Android, or some weird combination of both at the same time.
Google is already forbidding Android tablet licensees from bundling support for the smartphone Android Marketplace. That indicates that Google either wants third parties to make up their own software stores for tablets (in order to prevent Google from having to support the same kind of integrated experience Apple has built to scale App Store offerings from the iPhone to iPad), or that it wants to relegate Android native apps to the smartphone and push HTML5-based apps on everything else.
That correlates with what Google employees have told me: that Google doesn’t see any future for Android apps, and expects everything to move toward HTML5 apps real soon now. If it didn’t, the company would be working harder to establish Android apps the same way Apple is working to cultivate a vibrant market for iPhone OS apps.
This all happened before
But wait, you might be asking yourself, aren’t we talking about Google here, the company that never fails and simply churns our success story after success story? Well no, the Google that actually exists only has one exceptional success story: paid search.
That goldmine is enabling Google to spend wildly on a number of crapshoots, the same way Microsoft’s monopolies of Windows, Server, and Office have allowed that company to ineffectually blow billions on schemes to clone the Palm Pilot, PlayStation, Tivo, iPod, and deliver a lot of alternative tablets, tables, media platforms, and other consumer products that simply didn’t ever amount to much.
To put Google’s I/O announcements into perspective, consider what the company unveiled last year: Wave, a wildly hyped communication tool that ultimately didn’t revolutionize anything. And consider that Google has been unable to deliver its own competition to websites (the very thing Google is supposed to be really good at doing) such as YouTube (Google Video flopped, prompting the company to buy its competitor for $1.65 billion), Twitter (Google’s Buzz imploded at launch, thanks to an excessively aggressive push out the gate, while its acquired Jaiku didn’t go anywhere), Facebook (remember Orkut? Maybe if you live in Brazil), and Wikipedia (Google’s own Knol didn’t ever gain any traction).
If Google can’t manage to effectively or consistently compete against websites with adware business models, how can it be expected to take on Apple, a highly competent hardware and software maker with a proven track record in software platform management, practical product development, marketing, online and brick and mortar retail, and customer support? One only has to look at the disappointing sales, poor service and inept marketing of Google’s Nexus One for clues.