Over the last few months, a great deal of time has been expended on the “hot competition” between Apple and Google in relation to smart phones. Much of this interest probably had to do with a partially imagined story of a once close friendship between Apple and Google, founded on their mutual enmity of Microsoft, now fractured on the rocks of competition and greed. While the truth probably isn’t as dramatic, whatever conflict exists is much less interesting than where they may overlap – especially when imagining where medical technology could go and how it would affect medical professionals. As most readers are undoubtedly aware, much of the recent discussion in the blogosphere on this topic (at least before January 27) was about the rapid ascent of the Android platform. The emergent themes were that the open and mutable nature of the Android operating system, the entry of multiple handset makers, and the absence of any restriction on software publishing will inevitably make Android the dominant smart phone platform of the future. The historical analogy given was desktop computing, where commodity hardware and a minimally restrictive operating system made Microsoft Windows the de facto standard, despite many obvious flaws. But, it seems this analogy is flawed and here’s why.
1. There will be more Android devices in the future than iPhone OS devices. Lots more.
Android is based on the Linux kernel, which already powers an unimaginable range of computers and devices. Google’s contribution of a rich communication and user interface layer will mean that we will not only see Android in phones and tablet computers but also cars, thermostats, refrigerators and who-knows-what else. This is going to be great for consumers. But, it’s not clear that the future ubiquity of Android means it will also be the de facto platform for smart phones. Many commentators have already made the arguments that Android phones will not be a unified platform, but rather splintered by a wide variety of hardware configurations, and that separately building the operating system and the devices will lead to unintended compromises.
What I want to emphasize, however, is that developing software for mobile devices is fundamentally different from developing desktop and enterprise applications. Specifically, mobile applications are much smaller and simpler to build. Most only take a few weeks of programmers’ time. The numerous developers rapidly publishing Android versions of their iPhone apps have already proven this and it means mobile computing is not going to be a winner-takes-all platform race. There are currently five major platforms: Symbian (Nokia), Blackberry (RIM), iPhone OS, Android and Windows Mobile. Maybe not all will survive into the next decade, but it’s difficult to imagine only one remaining.
2. The profitability and competition in the device market will help Apple too
If there was any doubt about this, just look at Apple’s most recent quarterly blow-out earnings. The number to look at is not the revenue of $15.7 billion (more than double Google’s, by the way) but rather the gross margin of 40%. This is incredible. Commodity hardware and open-source software means there will always be competitors entering with lower-priced devices. But do not forget that Apple also benefits from these same downward price pressures. In fact, Apple’s market power gets it lower prices on flash memory than its competitors, while it leverages open-source software development in its operating system kernel and web browser.
As proof of this principle, just look at the iPad’s starting price of $499. By designing its own CPU, Apple has further eliminated another supply cost. By being profitable at this low price, Apple just might have knocked out the legs from the consumer netbook market. Also, while Google can enter the device business, Apple can also enter the advertising business. Apple’s purchase of the mobile advertising company Quattro and its plans to integrate innovative advertisement displays directly into its mobile operating system suggest the latter isn’t far off either.
3. Mobile computing is most powerful when it interfaces to web data, but both ends are important
Tim O’Reilly, one of the most perceptive technology observers, recently reviewed the Google Nexus One and effectively suggested that it is not Apple vs Google but rather Apple vs the web. In an information age, controlling the data (i.e. Google) is more important than controlling the device (i.e. Apple).
Prognosticating in information technology is murky as web-based services are evolving very rapidly. Google will clearly remain a dominant storehouse of data into the foreseeable future. But new companies will continue to arise with compelling data in their sectors, such as Yelp for local restaurant and vendor reviews, IMDb for movies, and Twitter for social networking. And then of course there are the medical databases such as Cochrane, PubMed, and EMR-based patient data. But, even if cloud-based computing is the “killer app” for mobile computing, its means of consumption is very relevant. In fact, there will always be room to innovate on the user interface – witness the iPhone. If we use the car analogy and consider cloud data to be roads and highways, who wouldn’t want a nicer car(device – user interface) to drive?
We know history does not quite repeat itself, but does echo. So rather than reciting the story of Microsoft vs Apple with new characters, I suggest that we look beyond that simple analogy and consider it may not be Apple or Google in the mobile world, but rather it will be both. I expect both companies will flourish and we, the consumers, will be the beneficiaries.