No matter what sleek device Apple designs, it’s Google that will win the data war.
By Jeff Jarvis, contributor
Apple and Google, until recently friends and allies, are now fighting for the future of the Internet. They won’t occupy the same territory exactly: Apple will still design hardware; Google will still organize information and sell advertising. They have been complementary. But now they are competing to be our constant companion.
The two giants came into conflict over the mobile web; Apple (AAPL) with the iPhone and now the iPad, and Google (GOOG) with its Android operating system and Nexus One smart phone. But these are just skirmishes in the war to control the opportunities that will come when we are all connected to each other, all the time and everywhere.
With the iPad, Steve Jobs provides a bridge between Apple’s phones and computers, a way to fill more hours of our day with connectivity. It’s a smooth gadget, of course, but not a world-changer. Actually, it’s rather retrograde. After the web empowered us all as content creators, the iPad is trying to revert us back into audiences: mere consumers. Thus Apple tantalizes desperate media companies with the hope that they can regain the control over content that the web and its links broke for them. In this, Salon CEO Richard Gingras says, Apple is offering publishers a “fatal distraction.” Apple is nothing if not seductive.
In contrast to Apple’s control-and-quality strategy, Google is going for quantity: get as many devices as possible — phones, tablets, and gadgets yet to be imagined — to run its Android OS so developers will create more and better apps for a larger constituency. At the World Economic Forum at Davos this year, Google CEO Eric Schmidt told a group of journalists, “the phone is defined by the apps.”
That hasn’t happened quite yet. Time magazine, the New York Times (NYT), and other media companies are spending resources on the iPad, not on Android, despite what would appear to be a larger base. Google, I fear, has lost its vision of profound simplicity; its new products — Android, Wave, Buzz — can be bafflingly complex. This particular battle isn’t yet over.
But once we and our devices — phones, pads, TVs, refrigerators, cars — are connected, the idea of the mobile web will become meaningless; we’ll simply be online everywhere. Local information will be what matters. We will want to ask the web what it knows about what is around us at any moment.
Using your smart phone’s GPS and maps — or using Google Goggles to simply take a picture of, say, a club on the corner — you can ask what the web knows about that place. Are any of your friends there now? Geographic social platforms like Foursquare and Gowalla, or soon Facebook, Twitter, or Google Buzz, could tell you. Do your friends like the place? (Facebook and Yelp will know.) You can ask for pictures and video from inside, and be served geo-tagged content from Flickr and YouTube. Worried about health violations or arrests? Everyblock has government data on that. What band is playing there tonight? You can hear them. You can buy their music. What’s on the menu? What’s the most popular dish? Here are coupons and bargains for you. Finally, tell your friends you’re there on nearly all of those services, and see if they come by.
To connect us to all this, Google needs two things: First, it needs rivers more data; it needs us to annotate our world with information. The more we use our phones — of whatever brand — to leave reviews and photos and tell the web where we’ve gone, the more the web knows about those places. Second, Google needs to know more about us — it needs more signals such as location, usage history, and social networks — so it can make its services, and ads, more relevant to us.
Today, Apple may be providing the device that connects us to this almost omnipresent web of knowledge, but it’s still Google that has organized that web and still Google that best monetizes it. Google may compete with Apple in devices, operating systems, and app marketplaces, but that is a sideshow. For Google’s bottom-line business model is dead simple: The more we use the Internet, the better Google becomes. Apple is only helping us use it more. So in this battle, it doesn’t matter who wins. Google wins.
Jeff Jarvis, author of “What Would Google Do?”, blogs at Buzzmachine.com and heads the interactive program at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism.