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At I/O, More Evidence of Google’s Complicated Relationship With iOS

Google has the luxury of competing–fiercely–with Apple’s mobile operating system while simultaneously catering to Apple fans.

At I/O, More Evidence of Google’s Complicated Relationship With iOS
[Photo: Flickr user Gilipollastv]

A month ago at its Build conference, Microsoft announced plans to make it easy for developers to convert iOS and Android apps for Windows 10, with the goal of augumenting the app selection on its own operating system. At this week’s I/O conference, it was Google’s chance to portray the state of its relationship with Android and iOS. The company delivered, further evolving the complex and contrasting ways it runs both toward and against the operating system that powers the iPhone and iPad–and sometimes just runs around it.

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Microsoft had a few iOS apps, such as OneNote, prior to the arrival of its new CEO Satya Nadella, who has prioritized cross-platform development and presided over the launch of ambitious versions of Office for iOS and Android. Google has a much longer track record of putting many of its leading apps in front of iOS users. These have included Gmail, Google Maps and Google search (including Google Now), and, more recently, Google Inbox and Calendar. The company even supports iOS as a remote control for its Apple TV competitor, Nexus Player. (It hasn’t yet provided an iOS conduit to Android Wear despite the benefits I’ve argued that would bring–but rumors has it that one is in the works.) At I/O, the company continued to cater to Apple’s customers by launching its Google Photos app, with unlimited photo and HD video cloud storage, simultaneously for Android and iOS.

Google loves iOS in large part because many iOS users are affluent types, and therefore attractive targets for the ads that provide the vast majority of Google’s revenue. Its robust support for the iPhone and iPad is a double-edged sword for Apple. On one hand, having Google apps as part of the iOS ecosystem is a boon–Google’s disinterest in Windows Phone and Amazon’s Fire OS has created big holes in those platforms’ app libraries. And the availability of Google Maps was a welcome reprieve for iOS users as they impatiently waited for Apple to work out the kinks in its initially-shaky Apple Maps app. But Apple must be concerned about iOS users’ relationship with Google rivaling the one they have with Apple, particularly in key battlegrounds such as cloud storage, productivity apps, photo management, browsers, and mapping.

Google deals with iOS in at least three ways:

As ecosystem steward. With all the focus on new products and consumer technologies such as Google Now on Tap, it’s sometimes tough to remember that shows like I/O are primarily aimed at developers. There was much focus on issues they care about, such as improvements to app discovery, branding, and kid-friendliness. However, Google also announced that it will be extending many of its APIs to iOS developers via a popular framework called Cocapods. Just as Google needs iOS apps to help sway users to its services, it needs iOS API support to do the same for developers.

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As head-to-head competitor. With the exception of Nexus devices–and even those are produced in partnership with major manufacturers–Google licenses Android rather than produces its own hardware. Nonetheless, those devices, along with flagship Android phones from companies such as Samsung, represent some of the strongest competition to the iPhone and iPad. The rivalry has produced harsh words in the past from Steve Jobs as well as former Google executives such as Vic Gundotra. Now, though, Android and iOS continue to productively leapfrog each other without much smack talk from the Google side. At I/O, Android launched Android Pay, a direct answer to Apple Pay, and introduced other features which feel like they demand a response from Cupertino, such as selective app permissions.

As market expander. While much of the smartphone market’s profits may come from high-end devices, Google, like Microsoft, sees an opportunity to get the next billion smartphone users hooked on its services and to recruit more developers in emerging economies. That requires phone prices and experience tradeoffs that Apple is unwilling to instigate. As such, among the few initiatives launched last year that I/O 2015 revisited were Android One, the company’s reference platform for affordable handsets that run the latest version of Android, as well as measures to conserve bandwidth in nations where wireless connectivity is unaffordable or underpowered.

Google is also hitting ‘em where Apple ain’t with Brillo and Weave, its new operating system and language for the Internet of Things. Brillo has been characterized as an answer to Apple’s slow-to-arrive HomeKit, but it’s a far broader initiative that is more on par with the kind of industry consortia that chip giants Qualcomm and Intel are trying to build.

As a company enjoying market leadership with Android, Google deals with iOS from a position of strength versus Microsoft, which is still figuring out how to make its offerings relevant on mobile devices. Apple, meanwhile, steers largely clear of other companies’ operating systems. (Beats Music, which it acquired along with the rest of the headphone maker, lingers on Android and Windows Phone.) Google and Microsoft have different motives in supporting iOS. But even as they do so, they both paradoxically contribute to it having the best of all worlds when it comes to apps.

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About the author

Ross Rubin is founder and principal analyst at Reticle Research. He has been covering consumer technology and innovation for two decades.

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