January 20, 2010

Apple & Google are Primary Enemies? At What Cost?

BusinessWeek has an interesting article that is being passed around the Web tonight talking about potential discussions between Apple and Microsoft to make Bing the default search engine on the iPhone, replacing Google. The reason for this, the article speculates, is the increased competition between Cupertino and Mountain View, with the advent of the Android platform and Chrome OS. The article goes on to quote an unnamed source as saying that "Apple and Google know the other is their primary enemy", leading to the conclusion that working with Microsoft would be more advantageous for Apple than sticking with Google.

So what is this about? The enemy of my enemy is my friend?

I have talked at length previously about the capability of Google to take on Apple on many fronts, highlighted most directly in my "Could A Real Apple Fan Completely "Go Google"?" post last October, looking at the two companies offering competing products at the OS layer, the browser layer, the mobile platform, and many other applications. That the two firms are increasingly overlapping is clear.

But primary enemies? Really? I am not yet sure.

The 1980s saw Apple's primary enemy as Big Blue. IBM and its IBM PC was seen as this monolithic figure that needed to be combatted, made famous with Apple's 1984 ad which introduced the Macintosh. By the 1990s, having been relegated to a minority market share, smacked down repeatedly from Redmond, Apple was going up against Microsoft, which was mocked as "The Evil Empire" and attacked around the world as a monopoly. At times, Apple and Dell were seen as rivals. In the 2000s, Microsoft itself focused on different mortal enemies, from Netscape and AOL to Google, with Apple being a mere thorn in its side.

Jobs' Deal With Microsoft in 1997

Google's rise in the 2000s saw not Apple as a major enemy, but more accurately, Yahoo! and Microsoft. Google eventually grew to the point that it was half-heartedly rooting for Yahoo! to play a larger role on the Web, to reduce anti-competitive discussions, and Microsoft's enterprise dominance has been the clear target for the company's push of Google Apps, and growing Office suite.

In the decade, for the most part, Google and Apple remained friends - with Eric Schmidt's role on Apple's board for the majority of the decade being the most obvious example. Apple made the right decisions through the decade to include Google when it made the most sense, integrating Google search into Safari, and Google Maps on the iPhone.

Even with the increased competition, Google never flipped the switch that Microsoft once did, turning "evil". Whether it's assumed Apple and Google are best friends at this point is not as important as the two companies making the right choices for consumers.

Going back to the BusinessWeek article, the main focus is that Apple is looking to make Bing the default search engine on the iPhone, which would reduce, only mildly, some exposure to Google Search, and would help Microsoft more as their improving search engine is in the hands of iPhone fans everywhere. But this could be a humungous case of sour grapes, poised to no doubt leave a bad taste in our mouths. And we've seen it play out before.

In 1997, Steve Jobs, returning to the CEO position at Apple after his jettison the decade before, struck a deal with Microsoft and his arch-rival Bill Gates, to have Microsoft invest $150 million in the floundering Apple and, ridiculously, make Internet Explorer the default browser for the Mac. He even went so far as to say it was the best out there, dissing Netscape Navigator. It was a huge volley in Microsoft's battle to crush Navigator, and it reeked of backroom shenanigans that defied reality.

In 2010, moving to Bing would be perceived in the same light. While Bing has its fans, and I know some great people who work on the engine, the assumption from users is that Google is the gold standard in search. If Apple sells its customers short in what is perceived as a second class product, it erodes the customers' trust, and perception of quality from what's supposed to be a premium mobile experience. Even if Bing is twice as good as Google, no handful of on-stage demos from Steve Jobs and his team is going to make people think there's more to the story than Apple playing favorites.

From my view, Google is as concerned with Facebook and Microsoft as it is with Apple. If Apple is going after Google with Bing as a revenge play, then we customers are pawns being forced to accept embedding of products we didn't request. That very thing is what was at the heart of the DOJ's case against Microsoft in the late 1990s, and has me feeling less inclined to trust Apple, not more so.

Apple has gained a loyal customer base through focusing on best of breed, even if it costs a little bit more. From Apple, I should be able to assume a higher quality product, and something that reflects real worth. Bing is good, the very best Microsoft has ever offered in search, but backroom shenanigans dealt out due to hurt feelings or assumed alliances is wrong, no matter what. I don't think Apple and Google are going after each other's throats right now, and if so, Google is thinking about Apple less than Apple is thinking of them, so making a move because of enemies' rank is just ridiculous. It's not 1997 any more, and I have alternatives.

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