Why Google's Multimedia War With Apple Benefits Consumers

Google demonstrates Google TV
Google demonstrates Google TV

Google's (GOOG) war with Apple (AAPL) keeps intensifying by the day.

During Google's I/O developer conference last week, the Web search titan opened up several new fronts in the conflict, announcing new products or upgrades in mobile, TV and music. And Friday's decision by the Federal Trade Commission approving Google's $750 million acquisition of AdMob means Google can now open up with both barrels on Apple in the nascent battle for mobile ad supremacy.

As Newsweek's Dan Lyons, aka Fake Steve Jobs, observed: "Instead of pretending to still be an Apple ally, Google has basically thrown down the gauntlet and admitted that it's engaged in total war with Apple." Lyons, a longtime Apple watcher, said he's ditching his iPhone in favor of a device that runs on Android, Google's fast-growing mobile operating system.

Apple expert John Gruber echoed that sentiment: "Post-Google I/O, there's not much room left to see iPhone-vs.-Android as anything other than an all-out war," Gruber wrote. "What we've got here is a good old-fashioned epic rivalry."

Competition Is Great for Consumers

Google itself is no longer pretending that hostilities have not commenced. When Google's VP of Engineering Vic Gundotra introduced the latest version of Android at the I/O conference, he spoke about Android helping to prevent "a future where one man, one company, one device, one carrier would be our only choice." There was little doubt whom he was talking about.

As severalobservers have pointed out, the widening conflict is not only hugely entertaining, but more important, hugely beneficial for consumers. Nothing spurs innovation like competition, especially when that competition is between two of the most innovative companies in the world. So pull up a front row seat to watch the most important rivalry in technology today.

In recent months, Apple and mobile handset maket HTC -- perhaps Google's most important Android partner -- have filed dueling lawsuits over mobile phone patents. Now the conflict is spreading to other media.

Big Opportunity, But What About Usability?

Google TV, the search giant's most headline-grabbing recent initiative, is designed to achieve what, to date, has been a maddeningly elusive goal for big tech companies: The fusion of Internet and TV programming. It's also another direct challenge to Steve Jobs & Co., whose Apple TV product has been an uncharacteristic flop.

"There's a big opportunity here for Google to embed its technology into televisions," says Kurt Scherf, a principal analyst at research firm Parks Associates. "Google has the scale and the ability to target users and serve up ads that other players lack."

Still, as he wrote in a blog post Friday, Scherf has doubts about whether "the usability of the platform itself might be a detriment," referring to the need for a physical keyboard. And he's not convinced that search "is the way in which consumers want to engage in their TV experience."

Scherf has a point, but there's no doubt we're moving toward a day when consumers will enjoy an integrated Internet and TV experience in their living rooms. Given Google's dominance of the online ad market -- as well as its ownership of YouTube -- it's only natural for Google to venture into this realm.

Android Vs. Apple OS

In a larger sense, Google TV represents an escalation of a grudge match between Google and Apple that has already transfixed the tech community like so many spectators at the Roman Coliseum watching two gladiators go toe-to-toe. This war isn't just about competing products, though it is very much about that. More important, it's about two different visions of the future of computing.

"Open" and "Closed" have become highly loaded terms in the tech world, and there is plenty of debate about the relative "openness" or "closedness" of the approaches being pursued by Apple and Google. But one thing is clear: Apple's strategy is to build gorgeous, highly proprietary products that rely, and indeed depend, upon the openness of its platform to spur application developers. But Apple's openness is highly circumscribed and comes on its own terms.

For Apple, stunningly beautiful products are a pre-condition for platform openness, such as it is at Apple. Without a gorgeous and popular product like the iPhone, Apple app developers wouldn't be motivated to build software for the device.

Google's strategy, on the other hand, has been to focus less on the hardware and more on the platform itself -- Android -- and in general err on the side of openness. For Google, platform openness comes first, with the company betting that its inclusive approach will motivate software and hardware manufacturers to build innovative products.

These are two fundamentally different visions of the future of computing, and so far, each has paid off in its own way. As Gruber observes: "Apple and Google are jostling to shift the comparison between the two platforms to their very different strengths. Apple's strengths: User experience, design, consistency. Google's strengths: The cloud, variety, permissiveness."

Both Apple and Google are at the top of their game. Now, let the fireworks begin.