Beyond Google: Apple, Samsung, and the quest for control

To achieve independence, Apple and Samsung need to leave Google behind.

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Apple CEO Tim Cook on stage at WWDC. Tim Stevens/CNET

During his WWDC keynote on Monday, Apple CEO Tim Cook defiantly lobbed jabs at Google and Android as he hadn't before. Between taunts about malware, fragmentation, and inferior devices, Cook announced that the company further cut ties with Google by picking Bing as the backbone of its search efforts on its operating systems.

While outwardly yet another salvo in the "holy war" that Steve Jobs promised to wage on Google and Android, the move is much more than that. It's also an attempt by Apple to distance itself from Google and reduce its reliance on Google services. And Apple isn't alone: Samsung also used this week to further demonstrate its own smartphone operating system at its Tizen developer conference.

This exodus from Google in an appropriate strategy for Apple, a company that has long strove to control every aspect of the user experience. But before it does that, it's going to have to build an empire with all of the resources it could possibly need without relying on any other company that might get in the way.

Goodbye, Google; Hello, Bing

It's not insignificant that Apple is dropping Google's most important service -- search. It all started in 2010, when Bing became one of the search engines, along with Google and Yahoo, that you could use on the iPhone. Then, in 2013 with the release of iOS 7, Apple chose Bing (and Wolfram Alpha) over Google as the search engine that would power voice assistant Siri. Now, Apple is doing the same in Mac OS X Yosemite and iOS 8 with its revamped Spotlight search bar, a built-in tool that scans your device for contacts, apps, and files while pulling in Internet results when relevant. Google is still the default search engine for Apple's browser Safari, but that could very well change in the future, as well.

This change is a boon for Microsoft, which has been pushing people to use Bing for years (who could forget the Bing It On Challenge?). Now, whether they intend to or not, more Mac and iOS users will be pinging Bing when they search for something, so long as they use Spotlight search. While Microsoft comes out ahead here, it's tough to say that Apple is consciously trying to bolster Microsoft. Rather, it's more that Apple is merely trying to get away from Google, and Microsoft just happens be the short-term beneficiary.

Yet, search is just one example of how Apple's go-at-alone trend has developed. Back in 2012, Apple used iOS 6 to replace Google, which had powered iOS maps since the first iPhone, with its own app primarily powered by TomTom (the change carried over to Macs, as well). Though Apple Maps were rightly lambasted for a litany of embarrassing errors early on, Apple pressed ahead anyway.

Of course, Apple's selfish (and rightfully so) need to not depend on another company, let alone its main rival, for services and data is another driver here. As CNET's Rich Nieva reported, the move away from Google isn't so much about stopping iPhone owners from using Google (they can always go to Google.com), but about giving them another more tightly integrated choice that Apple created.

Samsung, too

Arguably, Samsung also is thinking like Apple, though to a lesser degree. The South Korean hardware manufacturer has relied on Google's Android OS to run its smartphones and tablets for years. That relationship is still going strong, but Samsung showed at its Tizen developer conference this week that it's looking for even small ways to distance itself from Google.

Tizen is an open-source Linux-based mobile operating system, which looks a lot like Android. It's already running on the Galaxy Gear Fit devices and the Samsung Z, and Samsung hopes that it will spread to more devices in the future. Though it's unlikely that a company of Samsung's size -- not to mention its need to try everything -- would abandon Android completely, it won't need to rely as much on Google and Android if Tizen does begin to pick up steam.

But stepping out of Google's shadow isn't so easy. If Google decides to discontinue support for a feature, which it does time and time again, neither Apple nor Samsung don't want to be left scrambling for an alternative.

Google Now and Everywhere

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Google stopped supporting Microsoft's ActiveSync in 2013. Screenshot by CNET

Speed. Accuracy. Convenience. Like some ever-helpful hydra, Google built an empire on search, and then worked its tendrils into just about every facet of modern life. As a result, trying to carve out a niche for its brands is a complicated prospect for device manufacturers.

Remember when Google killed off support for Exchange ActiveSync? Microsoft does -- it's the reason your Google Calendar no longer works on your Windows 8 device. If you want to check your mail and calendars on a Windows device, you'll need to make the recurring, awkward flip between Start menu and desktop, or eschew the Start menu altogether and stick to the desktop browser, sidestepping much of the point of Windows 8. Or switch to Outlook, which isn't going to happen: for many of us, too much of our lives revolves around Google services.

The point is that Google made the simple act of checking our calendars incredibly annoying on Microsoft's contentious new operating system. If Google can do this to a company of Microsoft's size and influence, it could do the same to Apple or Samsung. And even if the Android brand were to disappear tomorrow, Google would still leverage an immense amount of control over our modern technology as the company makes tentative steps into the home and works to get the rest of the world online. Apple is just covering its bases before Google makes another ActiveSync-like move.

Roll your own ecosystem

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Tizen OS needs to work hard to differentiate itself from Android. Nate Ralph/CNET

Where will these companies go from here? Vertical integration. Of a sort.

From search engine, to email provider, to a slew of other things, Google has stuck its fingers in pies innumerable. Microsoft took the same tack long ago, with Windows, Hotmail, the Xbox, and most recently, the Surface tablet. As for Apple, it already dominates the app and hardware conversation. But if it's truly going to retain their independence in a world where some third party could simply cut the strings, they'll continue to shoot for full control over their entire hardware and software ecosystem.

We've already seen this in the hardware, with Apple devices running on Apple-designed silicon being sold in Apple stores. On the software and services end, this will often mean reinventing the wheel -- consider Apple's efforts to make an end run around Google Drive with iCloud Drive. It means sprucing up Safari, with WebGL support and improved search integration with Spotlight, so that fence-sitters make the ultimate jump from Google Chrome. We'll likely be loath to trade Email@Gmail for Email@iCloud, but new features like Mail Drop and a revamped mail client could make the option a little more appealing. Ditto for things like Calendars, Messages (versus Google Hangouts), Pages and Numbers, and Photos, to take on Google's excellent, free alternatives.

Samsung has it a little harder. While it's a massive hardware manufacturer in its own right, in the West it's hard to see it as much more than a company that makes Google phones. The Tizen OS-powered Samsung Z is a step in another direction, albeit one that might be a little hard to differentiate from Samsung's existing wares. Expect Tizen to reinvent the aesthetic wheel, or fade into WebOS-esque obscurity.

We don't exactly relish the thought of even more independent ecosystems, app stores, and incompatible services creeping up, but these companies have grown too powerful to let a single player dictate how they'll run their businesses. If Samsung, Apple, and any other players hope to control their own destinies, they'll ultimately need to take the reins and control their total user experience, or remain at Google's mercy.

 

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