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Why I Favor Google over Apple

image Many of my good friends are big fans of Apple and its products. But not me. This good-natured difference in opinion leads us into never-ending mini-debates over Twitter or in real life over the relative merits of Apple’s products and those of its competitors.

I suspect many of them (respectfully) think I’m crazy. “Why would you want an inferior product?” “Why do you back a company that has all this information about you and follows you everywhere on the internet?”

I figured that one of these days, I should actually respond to them (fears of flamers/attacks on my judgment be damned!).

imageFirst thing’s first. I’ll concede that, at least for now, Apple tends to build better products. Apple has remarkable design and UI sense which I have yet to see matched by another company. Their hardware is of exceptionally high quality, and, as I mentioned before, they are masters at integrating their high-end hardware with their custom-built software to create a very solid user experience. They are also often pioneers in new hardware innovations (e.g., accelerometer, multitouch, “retina display”, etc.).

So, given this, why on earth would I call myself a Google Fanboi (and not an Apple one)? There are a couple of reasons for it, but most of them boil down basically to the nature of Google’s business model which is focused around monetizing use rather than selling a particular piece of content/software/hardware. Google’s dominant source of profit is internet advertising – and they are able to better serve ads (get higher revenue per ad) and able to serve more ads (higher number of ads) by getting more people to use the internet and to use it more. Contrast this with Apple who’s business model is (for the most part) around selling a particular piece of software or hardware – to them, increased use is the justification or rationale for creating (and charging more for) better products. The consequence of this is that the companies focus on different things:

  • image Cheap(er) cost of access – Although Apple technology and design is quite complicated, Apple’s product philosophy is very simple: build the best product “solution” and sell it at a premium. This makes sense given Apple’s business model focus on selling the highest-quality products. But it does not make sense for Google which just wants to see more internet usage. To achieve this, Google does two main things. First, Google offers many services and development platforms for little or no cost. Gmail, Google Reader, Google Docs, and Google Search: all free, to name a few. Second, Google actively attacks pockets of control or profitability in the technology space which could impede internet use. Bad browsers reducing the willingness of people to use the internet? Release the very fast Google Chrome browser. Lack of smartphones? Release the now-very-popular Android operating system. Not enough internet-connected TV solutions? Release Google TV. Not enough people on high-speed broadband? Consider building a pilot high-speed fiber optic network for a lucky community. All of these efforts encourage greater Web usage in two ways: (a) they give people more of a reason to use the Web more by providing high-value web services and “complements” to the web (like browsers and OS’s) at no or low cost and (b) forcing other businesses to lower their own prices and/or offer better services. Granted, these moves oftentimes serve other purposes (weakening competitive threats on the horizon and/or providing new sources of revenue) and aren’t always successes (think OpenSocial or Google Buzz), but I think the Google MO (make the web cheaper and better) is better for all end-users than Apple’s.
  • Choice at the expense of quality – Given Apple’s interest in building the best product and charging for it, they’ve tended to make tradeoffs in their design philosophy to improve performance and usability. This has proven to be very effective for them, but it has its drawbacks. If you have followed recent mobile tech news, you’ll know Apple’s policies on mobile application submissions and restrictions on device functionality have not met with universal applause. This isn’t to say that Apple doesn’t have the right to do this (clearly they do) or that the tradeoffs they’ve made are bad ones (the number  of iPhone/iPad/iPod Touch purchases clearly shows that many people are willing to “live with it”), but it is a philosophical choice. But, this has implications for the ecosystem around Apple versus Google (which favors a different tradeoff). Apple’s philosophy provides great “out of the box” performance, but at the expense of being slower or less able to adopt potential innovations or content due to their own restrictions. image Case in point: a startup called Swype has built a fascinating new way to use soft keyboards on touchscreens, but due to Apple’s App Store not allowing an application that makes such a low-level change, the software is only available on Android phones. Now, this doesn’t preclude Swype from being on the iPhone eventually, but it’s an example where Apple’s approach may impede innovation and consumer choice – something which a recent panel of major mobile game developers expressed concern about — and its my two cents worth that the Google way of doing things is better in the long run.
  • image Platforms vs solutions – Apple’s hallmark is the vertically integrated model, going so far as to have their own semiconductor solution and content store (iTunes). This not only lets them maximize the amount of cash they can pull in from a customer (I don’t just sell you a device, I get a cut of the applications and music you use on it), it also lets them build tightly integrated, high quality product “solution”. Google, however, is not in the business of selling devices and has no interest in one tightly integrated solution: they’d rather get as many people on the internet as possible. So, instead of pursuing the “Jesus phone” approach, they pursue the platform approach, releasing “horizontal” software and services platforms to encourage more companies and more innovators to work with it. With Apple, you only have one supplier and a few product variants. With Google, you enable many suppliers (Samsung, HTC, and Motorola for starters in the high-end Android device world, Sony and Logitech in Google TV) to compete with one another and offer their own variations on hardware, software, services, and silicon. This allows companies like Cisco to create a tablet focused on enterprise needs like the Cius using Android, something which the more restrictive nature of Apple’s development platform makes impossible (unless Apple creates its own), or researchers at the MIT Media lab to create an interesting telemedicine optometry solution. A fair response to this would be that this can lead to platform fragmentation, but whether or not there is a destructive amount of it is an open question. Given Apple’s track record the last time it went solo versus platform (something even Steve Jobs admits they didn’t do so well at), I feel this is a major strength for Google’s model in the long-run.
  • image(More) open source/standards – Google is unique in the tech space for the extent of its support for open source and open standards. Now, how they’ve handled it isn’t perfect, but if you take a quick glance at their Google Code page, you can see an impressive number of code snippets and projects which they’ve open sourced and contributed to the community. They’ve even gone so far as to provide free project hosting for open source projects. But, even beyond just giving developers access to useful source code, Google has gone further than most companies in supporting open standards going so far as to provide open access to its WebM video codec which it purchased the rights to for ~$100M to provide a open HTML5 video standard and to make it easy to access your data from a Google service however you choose (i.e., IMAP access to Gmail, open API access to Google Calendar and Google Docs, etc.). This is in keeping with Google’s desire to enable more web development and web use, and is a direct consequence of it not relying on selling individual products. Contrast this with an Apple-like model – the services and software are designed to fuel additional sales. As a result, they are well-designed, high-performance, and neatly integrated with the rest of the package, but are much less likely to be open sourced (with a few notable exceptions) or support easy mobility to other devices/platforms. This doesn’t mean Apple’s business model is wrong, but it leads to a different conclusion, one which I don’t think is as good for the end-user in the long run.

These are, of course, broad sweeping generalizations (and don’t capture all the significant differences or the subtle ones between the two companies). Apple, for instance, is at the forefront of contributors to the open source Webkit project which powers many of the internet’s web browsers and is a pioneer behind the multicore processing standard OpenCL. On the flip side, Google’s openness and privacy policies are definitely far from perfect. But, I think those are exceptions to the “broad strokes” I laid out.

In this case, I believe that, while short-term design strength and solution quality may be the strengths of Apple’s current model, I believe in the long run, Google’s model is better for the end-customer because their model is centered around more usage.

I will leave you with another reason to love Google: Google ads have helped save princesses.

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  • I’d say your broad generalizations are a bit *too* broad. After all, Apple has built all of its operating systems fundamentally on open source components to which it has contributed (e.g. FreeBSD, Mach kernal, Darwin, LLVM, clang, gcc), as well as enabled strong support for many widely used community-developed languages, such as Ruby, Python, Perl, MySQL, etc. I’d say that Apple’s support of open-source isn’t really an exception to the rule as much as just not being a priority in and of itself. I’m sure ceteris paribus Apple and its employees would prefer to support open source development (free labor? wider adoption of their technologies? who wouldn’t?), but they’ll only expend company resources to do so if it really means helping their overall strategy of making money.

  • It’s sort of strange, but I’ve come to the conclusion that Google really enables users like me to love the Apple model. At this point, Apple is playing “big brother” as much as the next company, but the fact that I have a certain amount of choice in the respective markets (computer, cell phone, cloud services, etc) gives me enough room to feel comfortable with that. I know that I’m willing to accept the limitations that Apple puts forth because I can see what an open platform is like right on the other side of the fence (i.e. Windows, Android). Without Microsoft and Google, I can almost positively say that I wouldn’t be the Apple fanboi that I am today.

  • Ben

    Fanboi :-P. In all seriousness, I probably should have been clearer — I wasn’t referring to adoption of open source (e.g., using open source/community developments in your stack) — if anything that’s how Apple was able to close the gap with Microsoft in terms of ecosystem support — what I was referring to was actually open-sourcing its own code/adopting open standards. You’re right that Apple’s self-interest is sometimes aligned with it, but because of their business model, that self-interest is less oftentimes aligned with it than Google’s.

  • I agree with many of your points, but I also think Apple’s approach will garner more users in the long run because more and more people don’t want or value what Google has to offer (vs Apple).
    -They don’t want cheap, generic products; they want a unique, authentic experience and brand to identify with.
    -They don’t want a platform; they want a specific product to open their wallets for.
    -They don’t want choice; they want to avoid matrices of slightly dissimilar products and specifications.
    -They don’t want open standards with myriad implementations and interfaces; they want a consistent UX across their iPhone, iPad, and iMac.

    While tech was once mostly used by early-adopters who cared about cultivating open platforms and choice, today, the general populace wants something that “just works” and doesn’t really care about the ramifications of buying into a closed system. 🙁

    Using an Apple product means you don’t have to think about it. That’s pretty appealing.

  • Ben

    Although I agree with a lot of what you said, I don’t think I come to the same conclusions as you:
    – First, you’d be surprised at how many people want cheap, generic products — even if I ignore the emerging markets, the penetration of smartphones is pretty small on a unit basis — thats one reason I talked about how Nokia’s saving grace may be bringing smartphone-like functionality to feature phones (http://www.benjamintseng.com/2010/07/nokia-conducting-search-for-a-new-ceo/)
    – A platform play doesn’t preclude the ability to make a “unique, authentic experience”: the Cisco Cius and HTC’s Sense UI give great examples of custom hardware and user-interface experiences which can have a lot of value above “vanilla Android”
    – “Just works” and “consistent UX” are also not out of reach with Android — it’ll take a bit of work, but a more open platform allows developers/manufacturers to pursue the path towards greatest profitability — there’s no doubt that Apple has an edge when it comes to this, but there’s no reason the Google/Android ecosystem can’t narrow that gap
    – On a direct level, consumers want a good product more than a platform, but keep in mind that a platform is oftentimes the best tool towards driving the investment economics needed to have a great product: think Windows — for all of its flaws, there are a lot of people (esp. enterprises) who still only use Windows because of the apps/services that run only on its platform; for the longest time, you couldn’t be a gamer on Mac for that reason
    – I think you’re right that the average consumer doesn’t care about open standards per se — but thats only if you present it at an abstract level; maybe this is me being naively optimistic, but I do think that sooner or later, the inability of Apple customers to use their data/content the way they want will hurt Apple; it hasn’t happened yet, because Apple’s done a great job of consistently building the best (or one of the best) value proposition and have made strategic “flexibility concessions” (i.e. DRM-free music on iTunes) where needed to tide over complaints; to believe that the closed system wins is to believe that Apple can always, forever, build the best value proposition — and thats something I don’t think works long-term

  • Anonymous

    It may garner more users, but that’s not the end of things. Having the right kind of users, the ones who hack things and add value to your platform, is also important. Given the exorbitant cost to develop for the iphone (gotta buy a mac, then there’s licensing), Google gets more hackers.

    Having a product you don’t have to think about is fine if you just want to check the weather, but one that really works, can access low-level hardware, allows you to do a lot more. Basically, Android is doing what Symbian had the opportunity to do an chose not to.

    Totally agree with Ben about the fact that lack of support for open standards will come back to bite Apple on the ass. They’re a content company, part of the same group as Disney, whose opinions towards reuse of cultural works is well known, so this attitude from Apple isn’t surprising.

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  • NoSpinHere

    Ben Tseng, what an excellent piece of analysis!!  Your are 100% there in explaining the managerial differences between Apple and Android.  I will explain later why the media is so biased in favor of Apple.  I encourage you to explore this so you can be convinced of the same.  Back to your analysis: I have vowed numerous times that I will never buy another Apple product again; moreover, your analysis finally details the differences in strategy that will ultimately lead to Apple’s demise.  I left Apple all together (no IPhone, IPod, etc.) because I was tired and disgusted with Apple’s “forced-purchases” on its client base. In other words, once Apple entices you on your first pricey investment, it eventually neglects the product (and suspiciously it no longer operates as smoothly as when you first purchased it); hell, you can’t even change out batteries on most Apple products you “OWN” (take the IPod for example!!).  They strategically and technologically design ways to pressure you to make another Apple purchase, putting yet more money in Steve Jobs’ pockets.  I ditched all my Apple products for Android-based devices and never looked back – and guess what? I have Customer Service at last!!!  IPod sales in the first quarter of 2011 were down a whopping 17% based on research from the highly regarded tech firm of Gartner, Inc.  Android users had a lot to do with this change: Because Android music player apps allow you to sync your Itunes music playlists, etc., to your Android phone, it eliminates the need for an IPod.   It’s a shame that Apple, as a pioneer in the technology world, could essentially own it if it took just a little care of its customers by putting greed aside.  If this were to happen, Apple it could be unstoppable. They just don’t get it, and it’s probably too late because Android is now a speeding freight train that very possibly can’t be stopped.  Apple slaves have been freed by Android.     Now, going back to the media bias.  There are extreme so-called tech “news” websites (“Daily-Tech”, PC World”, InfoWorld”, etc.) that are so biased against anything NOT Apple, they are considered an extension of Apple marketing department.  Enough said.

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