Apple's ground game versus Google's long game

As Android has failed to expand far beyond smartphones, Apple has fortified a device ecosystem around pillars of related operating systems. Google sees AI as its wrecking ball.
Written by Ross Rubin, Contributor

Every year, Apple's and Google's developer conferences offer an opportunity to assess the priorities of the companies that control the vast majority of the world's smartphone operating systems. While Google's infamous penchant for distraction has pointed the way to where computing may be heading, its failure to expand device dominance beyond smartphones and Chromebooks has given Apple a window to build leadership in other smart product categories.

Having declared a few years ago that AI was overshadowing mobile, Google tends to talk about core improvements in its services with Maps, for example, as a particularly strong focus area.The company also tends to make spotty forays into uncharted territory. Among the casualties: Daydream, the Nexus Q, the Jump VR camera rig, Clips camera, OnHub routers, the early-to-market Project Tango, and the late-to-market Allo.

Also: How Salesforce got its developer conference right, while Microsoft, Apple, Facebook, and Google lost their way 

But all of these can almost be redeemed by breakthroughs such as the Duplex appointment-making capabilities of Google Assistant and its promising app-navigating cousin. Whether they be tops, flops or even have much relevance to developers, Google's IO announcements have come to generate anticipation of boundary-pushing tech wizardry.

In contrast, Apple's WWDC developer events have come to revolve around their four (now five) operating system pillars, each strongly coupled to a specific device. Even the scope of the announcements has fallen into a pattern, with TVOS getting relatively small bumps, WatchOS receiving more significant changes, and iOS and MacOS getting the most attention. Future versions of iPadOS will likely contend for that level of attention as well even though it will likely share many iOS improvements for some time. This all makes sense. Even with WatchOS becoming a more independent platform, the iPhone, iPad and Mac offer far richer and broader capabilities. Improving proficiency with these platforms draws the overwhelming majority of WWDC developer attendees.

Apple also spends some time focusing on a few of its core cross-device technologies such as Siri and, especially this year, ARKit. But the company's continuous improvements across its device family has allowed it to take strong leads in virtually every adjacent category to the smartphone. This was first demonstrated as the polished iPad interface pulled far ahead of support for Android tablets -- so far ahead that Google itself has moved away from Android on its latest tablet. But it's also been the case for TVOS and WatchOS and is taking shape with Apple's latest field where the company has outperformed Google: its popular AirPods versus Google's forgotten Pixel Buds.

Even as Google ramps up its hardware efforts to avoid some of its past mistakes and sees more success with its own branded smartphones, it is making bets on AI and cloud to circumvent Apple's PC-derived paradigm -- a legacy that a proactive, cloud-based agent could eventually render irrelevant. Increasingly, though, it will have to do this across dominant device classes designed by Apple in California.


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