Steve Jobs, we now know, wanted to go "thermonuclear" on Google for perceived design thefts. Google, in the post-Jobs era, is doing nothing to cool the heated rivalry between the two firms. By drawing together a few recent insights about Google's moves and Apple's innovations, one might wonder if Google is afraid of falling behind its rival--for good.
Let us count the ways this could happen:
The Google-Apple rivalry was highlighted when Google's Eric Schmidt testified to the Senate antitrust committee on Friday. Attempting to allay suspicions that Google's control over the search market is monopolistic, monolithic, and quashing competition, Schmidt's written statement said "Apple has launched an entirely new approach to search technology with Siri, its voice-activated search and task-completion service built into the iPhone 4S."
That's something we've noticed before: Siri is powerful for Apple in the search market in three ways--it acts as a first-sift on top of search activity that its iOS users are up to, meaning Apple gets access to a rich database (and it has a huge data center to process it) on what people are searching for. It also acts as a gateway between search terms and alternative sources of information, which is notably Wolfram Alpha in the first implementation of Siri...meaning a tranche of search traffic is diverted away from Google.
Eric Schmidt was smart to bring up Apple in this context, and it's quite definitely a political move: Google really is dominant over the search market, and though the playing field is dynamic and Google's competitors make ground and then lose it, Google's lead seems all but unassailable--and bringing up the name of one of the biggest companies in the world, a competitor that's a media and society darling, is clever.
But there could be a grain of truth in this. Apple sells tens of millions of iPhones per quarter, meaning that by mid 2012 a hundred million people could be using Siri--assuming Apple only implements Siri on the iPhone 4S. There's already some evidence Apple may be porting it back onto the iPhone 4 (with countless millions of that handset already in use, and many more to come because it's still on sale). There's also no reason Apple couldn't put it on the iPad 2, and the Mac, and we're definitely expecting it on the iPad 3. Soon enough, if you play the numbers, this means half a billion people could be acclimatized to a whole new way of doing Net searches...one that Google has no immediate control over.
And there's the esthetic angle too--Google has voice control in Android, and a pretty sophisticated implementation of Voice Search, but the technology doesn't come close to the wow factor of Siri.
2. Maps and Navigation
Google is already the supplier of Apple's built-in mapping solution, and its innovations in online and on-phone mapping have been partly responsible for huge bites being taken out of the standalone GPS market--where names like TomTom and Garmin used to dominate navigation. But Apple detractors love to point out that there are no native turn-by-turn navigation options for iOS devices, whereas Android has a solution like this built in (the argument misses out on the idea that paid apps like Navigon's may actually be more sophisticated for navigation than Google's own effort, but it's still a valid comparison).
We know Apple's aggressively patented smartphone navigation technology, some of which has a social element like Find My Friends, but much of which has yet to surface. We also think Apple's bought an innovative 3-D ground imaging company that could recreate accurate representations of streets and terrain that makes Google's Earth, Streetview, and Maps look old-fashioned.
Now it's emerged that C3, the rumored Apple purchase, was also involved in applying its high-resolution mapping tech at street level, and also could deploy special units to recreate the inside of buildings. That's potentially very important. For example, we've heard, only very recently, that Google has been looking to expand its Street View images inside buildings...and from first impressions, it looks like both the resolution and the image quality is already better with C3's tech than Google's.
Apple is sitting on over $80 billion in cash, and from recent revelations (which have confirmed earlier hunches) we know it's clever in aggressively spending this money to secure long-term leads in its product lineups. With that much capital, it's plausible that Apple could very quickly deploy imaging systems to scan the world at a level of detail that surpasses Google's. With public goodwill seemingly much better toward Apple than Google, it's even possible Apple's system could be invited into more locations than its rival. And then that would give Apple a very powerful mapping and imaging system all of its own--ready to be tied into its mobile devices, its location-based services, and advertising offerings.
This is a hypothetical point, but we suspect that Apple's planning something like this because it accidentally alluded to collecting real-time car traffic data when defending the "locationgate" affair, and it's serious because it means less money would siphon Google's way.
Google's making news at the moment with its Google TV devices, upgrading the operating system and implying that it'll be throwing more effort behind the scheme to rival traditional cable. It's controversial, because some thinkers suggest Google TV is already dead in the water.
But Apple's been making a bigger splash in the news with strong rumors about a full-functioning Apple television set, powered with a unique interface that Steve Jobs (master of the "it just works" interfaces on the Mac, iPhone, and iPad) himself was personally proud of.
The TV market is a minefield, particularly in the U.S., of competing interests and middlemen--which is a web of politics that Google's failed to break through, and which is exactly the kind of tangled market Apple likes to challenge head-on with a paradigm-shattering model.
Google's Wallet is one of the first very large-scale efforts at bringing NFC "wave and pay" systems to the general population. It's a bold move, right at the cutting edge of innovating how the world thinks about paying for goods--and because Google's effort is built right into Android, unlike some competing systems it can offer the more sophisticated benefits of NFC (like loyalty rewards integration, smart on-the-spot advertising, and so on).
But Apple's just begun a new experiment in payments in its own stores that already, in some ways, makes Wallet look like old technology: Via its special Store app, you can order and pay for goods in an Apple store--including walking out of the store with your new purchases without having to do anything other than tap at your iPhone screen. In some ways, this could be Apple testing a broader implementation of a future "iPay" scheme which could be licensed to other retailers. And while Google is just beginning to collate millions of users' credit card details, Apple's iTunes system (married to its earlier MobileMe and now iCloud) means it has one of the largest existing databases of user credit cards in the world...primed for exploitation in a new shopping technology.
5. Research, Spending, and Nervousness
Consider other bits of Google news here: It recently slashed many of its experimental Google Labs products, dramatically changing its shotgun-style research and development habits to create a more refined, targeted solution. The move means the character of Google has changed a little, perhaps because it had to because Labs products weren't doing the core business any financial favors. And it's made Google a tad more Apple-esque.
The purchase of Motorola Mobility is also a stand-out event, because it will allow Google to integrate hardware and software in some future Android phones (and tablets) more closely than has been possible. It's a double-edged sword, because it exposes Google to more allegations of platform fragmentation as well as potentially ostracizing big-name Android partners, but it will allow Google to make more polished smartphones. In a way that is, unmistakably, Apple-inspired.
All of which leaves us with a strange tingling on the backs of our necks: Google probably doesn't see a big "threat" to its core business from Apple on any one of these individual fronts...it dominates search, its Android handset is riding high as sales leader in the new smartphone world, and its ancillary products like Voice and Apps are gaining much support in the consumer and enterprise markets. But if you add all the little niggles into one idea, then Google may actually be sensing a clear and present danger from Apple. Those angry barks from Jobs about the "theft" of ideas in Android may, in fact, also come with a bite.
[Image: Flickr user calamity_photography]