Why Apple suddenly needs Google again

Before you get caught up in this week's Apple's announcements, there's another factor that could inject new life into the Apple ecosystem.
Written by Jason Hiner, Editor in Chief
Steve Jobs and Eric Schmidt warmly shake hands at the original iPhone launch in 2007. | Image: Apple

Once back-slapping friends, the relationship between Apple and Google was torpedoed by the ascendency of Android. Eric Schmidt resigned from the Apple board, Steve Jobs declared "thermonuclear war" against Android, and little by little Apple disentangled Google services from its products as retaliation.

It's that last point that that Apple must now reconsider.

As much as any product announcements Apple will make this week, renewing its partnership with Google on services would re-energize the Apple ecosystem. There are mixed signals in terms of the likelihood of such a move. But, there is a scenario in which a renewal of ties could be good for both companies while still allowing them to compete as stewards of the world's two largest mobile device platforms.

As you follow the flurry of iPhone news this week, keep in mind that Apple devices don't just need larger screens and fashionable hardware and lower prices for emerging markets. No, what Apple devices need more than anything else is data and services. These are not things that the company can develop quickly and they are not core competencies. Apple is now in a position where it is going to have to partner well and integrate swiftly. And, it's going to need to allow deeper hooks into the platform for developers.

In its recent Oral History of Apple Design, Fast Company observed:

"One of the key ingredients in Amazon, Facebook, and Google is data. Those businesses were built on deep technical understanding of how to manage swaths of data. Apple doesn't know how to do that."

I've been using iPhone and Android side-by-side every day since the beginning of 2010. Over the past year I've increasingly spent more time on Android because that device knows me better, regularly anticipates my needs, and integrates more smoothly with the services that I care about.

At the center of this experience sits Google Now, one of the first applications that has demonstrated the value of big data to consumers. Apple can't replicate that. It doesn't have enough of the data or the expertise to make it actionable. Even Google can't replicate it on iOS at the moment. It has already released an iPhone version of Google Now, but the service is inconspicuously tucked away in the Google search app and its usefulness is limited by the mediocre iOS notifications system.

The problem is that because of larger business conflicts, Apple has acted punitively toward partners such as Google and Amazon and limited the functionality of their services in the iOS ecosystem. In both cases, it has hurt iOS and Apple's users far more than Google or Amazon.

In terms of Google, Apple has spent a lot of effort in removing deep integration with Google apps and services. It killed the native YouTube app that had been built into iOS and it stopped using Google Maps to power the built-in Maps app and replaced it with its own Apple Maps, which has been nothing short of a functional and PR disaster. Google has released its own third-party versions of both apps and they are now among the most downloaded free apps by iPhone and iPad users. However, in both cases, they've lost the deep integration with iOS itself.

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In the case of Amazon, Apple disallowed app providers from integrating or even linking to their e-commerce stores from within their iOS apps, unless they shared the revenue with Apple. As a result, Internet companies such as Amazon that already operate on thin profit margins have effectively had to remove shopping functionality from their apps.

In Amazon's case, this meant removing the ability to find and purchase ebooks from within its Kindle app and the ability to find and purchase audiobooks from within its Audible app. You now have to make those purchases from the web browser and then go back into the app and download them. It's an inconvenient user experience.

As a result, this issue of deep integration is an area where iOS is losing to Android. The convoluted purchase issue is one thing (in Android, you can still purchase Kindle books and Audible audiobooks from directly within the apps). However, the larger issue is the deeper hooks that Android allows developers to get into the platform itself. There are security and privacy implications, but the functionality benefits are substantial.

I have many of the same apps and services installed on both iPhone and Android. The iPhone versions of most apps have almost always been better-designed, updated more regularly, and nicer to look at. Nevertheless, over the past year I keep gravitated toward Android more and more for interacting with excellent services like Evernote, Dropbox, Google Drive, Pocket, Twitter, Facebook, Google+, Flickr, etc. Instead of having to go into the apps to do everything like I have to do in iPhone, in Android there are menu options to upload things, share things, and save things from virtually any web page or file or app or service. It eliminates extra steps and it creates a more powerful set of options.

That's why it's time for Apple to stop blocking valuable partners from offering robust functionality in iOS and to start allowing more companies deeper access into the iOS platform. And the company it show go to and convince to be first in line is Google.

Google has stated time after time that its primary motivation is promoting greater Internet usage in general and the company has continued to produce quality iOS apps from Gmail to Google+ to Chrome to its Google search app with excellent voice recognition. Google won't take much convincing to go deeper on iOS.

And, Apple can still differentiate itself from Android by also cutting deals with Yahoo and Microsoft to leverage their massive audiences, popular services, and mountains of data in deeper and more meaningful ways on the iPhone. Both of those companies are already doing excellent iOS apps as well. It won't take much convincing if Apple offers to open up the Kimono and let them see what they can do in iOS to use their own big data stacks to deliver more powerful user experiences.

When Apple first launched the iPhone in 2007, it was closed to third-party apps, other than a few select partners. A year later, when Apple opened up the platform more broadly to developers, that's when the mobile app explosion happened and the iPhone really took off and leapt ahead of its smartphone rivals. Now, one of the best opportunities for Apple take another big leap forward is to open up its platform more deeply to developers in order to unleash a fresh wave of innovation. The company's favorite neighbor in Mountain View should be the first partner on the list.

The long thawing of the frosty relationship between Google and Apple has been uneven, to say the least. Steve Jobs and Eric Schmidt met at a cafe in 2010. Larry Page visited Jobs on his deathbed in 2011. Tim Cook and Larry Page reportedly met in 2012 to talk about settling the patent war between the two companies.

In July 2013, Schmidt said that he had "a lot of respect for Apple." He also indicated, "We're sort of in constant, constant business discussions on a long list of issues. These are two proud, well-run, different companies."

At the January 2007 event where Apple announced the iPhone, Jobs invited a handful of special guests on stage to show that key partners were invested in the iPhone. One of them was was Google's then-CEO (and Apple board member) Schmidt.

In introducing Schmidt, Jobs said, "[The iPhone is] the Internet in your pocket for the first time ever. Now, you can't really think about the Internet, of course, without thinking about Google… We're working with them on Google Search … and Google Maps. We've been working very closely with them to make this all happen and we're thrilled with the results."

Has too much happened for the companies to work together that well again? To no one's surprise, Google still appears to be willing. The difference now is that Apple needs Google's partnership more than ever. That sets the stage for a new collaboration that could benefit both companies, and hundreds of millions of users.

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