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The upside to Apple's control freakishness

Apple and Google bring diverse, opposing strengths to their battle for the mobile Web.

Google attracts an ever-growing horde of Android-loving developers. But can Google's developer growth outpace Apple's?

It's not clear, especially as the developer battle spans both client and cloud.

I'm a big fan of Google's open-source approach, but there are signs that Apple's control-all-delete-competitors approach is working and will continue to work. That is unless, of course, Google can effectively counter consumer lust for Apple gadgets with compelling cloud services that tie to a broader range of devices.

Google, while making a lot of progress with Android, has a long road ahead of it. However much Apple may jerk around its developer base--and it does--Apple also provides a consistent, coherent developer story: write for the iPhone or iPad...or both. As Bloomberg BusinessWeek writes:

In order to develop products just as he wants them, [Apple CEO Steve] Jobs has shown a willingness to do more than his rivals. PC makers such as Dell and Hewlett-Packard are powered by Intel and run Windows by Microsoft; neither has shown interest in the costly job of building unique operating systems or designing its own chips. Apple does both. Microsoft and Google have only recently decided to design their own mobile devices, and in most cases they're purchasing "white label" hardware from other manufacturers and branding it as their own. The iPad's 10-hour battery life is a result of Apple's ablity to have its chip, software, and industrial designers work together to limit unneeded power use.

All this eases the tech-buying public down the path toward Apple; iPhone's smartphone market share is currently 25.4 percent, according to ComScore. And as long as the company exerts a gravitational pull on consumers--and manages to balance the rewards to developers with pushing them around--the apps will just keep coming.

Google, for its part, is both helped and hurt by its broad-based approach to the market. Its Android OS powers a proliferating array of devices, which is good. But it's also bad in the sense that developers have to write applications to run on different versions of Android and on different devices.

Mark Sigal writes that the "best case for Google with Android is that mobile technology and mobile platforms become sufficiently commoditized for its device OEM-centric, horizontal model to tip the balance in its favor."

We're everywhere. That's good, right? Google

This isn't happening in the short term. As such, for the immediate future, developers want to write once and have consumers run their applications everywhere. For now, this is easier to accomplish with the iPhone than Android.

Apple, in other words, is to mobile what Microsoft was to the desktop. Given that "mobile is the new desktop," as Redmonk analyst Stephen O'Grady posits, this means Apple could dominate computing for decades to come, unless something changes, and soon.

But there's still hope for Google (and others). Lots of hope. Mobile is critical, yes, but it's only half the story, something that Charlie Stross points out:

If you're using [a mobile device] in 2015, my bet is that you won't bother to have home broadband; you'll just have data on demand wherever you are....[Y]ou won't have a "computer" in the current sense of the word. You'll just be surrounded by a swarm of devices that give you access to your data whenever and however you need it.

This is why there's a stench of panic hanging over Silicon Valley. This is why Apple [has] turned into paranoid security Nazis, why HP [has] just ditched Microsoft from a forthcoming major platform and splurged a billion-plus on buying up a near-failure; it's why everyone is terrified of Google:

The PC revolution is almost coming to an end, and everyone's trying to work out a strategy for surviving the aftermath.

Devices, in other words, are only part of the story. The cloud is arguably much more important.

Apple's compelling developer story ties the device directly to the cloud. As Jim Stogdill articulates, "[Apple's device strength] leads to market presence, and then the market presence makes for stronger monetization opportunities in the device-hosted channel [i.e., App Store/cloud services]."

Google, by contrast, has a more open approach. The stakes for winning, as Tim O'Reilly recently noted, are huge:

[I]t is becoming increasingly clear that the Internet is becoming not just a platform, but an operating system, an operating system that manages access by devices such as personal computers, phones, and other personal electronics to cloud subsystems ranging from computation, storage, and communications to location, identity, social graph, search, and payment.

The question is whether a single company will put together a single, vertically-integrated platform that is sufficiently compelling to developers to enable the kind of lock-in we saw during the personal computer era, or whether, Internet-style, we will instead see services from multiple providers horizontally integrated via open standards.

There is no "tie goes to the winner" in this epic battle, because it's largely a winner-takes-all race, just as the desktop was before it. Apple has the lead, because it delivers such impressive hardware. Google needs to strengthen its Android hand with a cloud story that more directly ties into its device story.

Google isn't alone in this, which is why it would be nice to see the everyone-but-Apple camp consolidate around a common platform: Linux. (OK, so Microsoft isn't likely to do this, but it will eventually learn that flogging the dead Windows Mobile horse is a losing strategy.)

Android is not Linux: it is a developer platform that rides on top of Linux. Other initiatives, from MeeGo to LinMo are competing to be the dominant Linux platform for mobile, but no Linux player (including Google) fully appreciates and caters to consumers as much as Apple does.

To beat Google, Apple needs more robust cloud services. To beat Apple, Google (and the Linux crowd, generally) needs a simpler consumer interface with a more consistent developer message.

Game on.