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Weekly Column

Strange Bedfellows: Why an Apple/Google collaboration has been so difficult to make happen.

Status: [CLOSED] comments (87)
By Robert X. Cringely

I have been asleep, apparently, at the big switch. This is according to former Harvard Business Review editor (and technology pundit in his own right) Nicholas Carr, who said as much this week in his very nice blog, Rough Type (look to your right, it's in the links). The opportunity I've missed, according to Carr, is explaining what the heck Apple and Google (or is it Google and Apple?) are actually doing together. With Google CEO Eric Schmidt sitting on the Apple board they must be up to something, those guys, and Carr was counting on me to 'splain it, only he ran out of patience. So in my absence Carr blurts out his truth, that Apple is the king of all interfaces and will shortly sell cheap devices uniquely suited to accessing the huge Google Brain wherein all knowledge and even some humor will be stored, ready to be served up complete with ads or perhaps for a monthly subscription. And thus will the world be changed.

Oh, if it were only that simple.

Here, thanks to Carr's quote of a quote, is what we have to work with. When Wired's Fred Vogelstein asked Schmidt why he had joined the Apple board, this was the Google CEO's answer:

"Google's architectural model around broadband and services and so forth plays very well to the powerful devices and services Apple is doing. We're a perfect back end to the problems that they're trying to solve. And they have very good judgment on user interface and people. They don't have this supercomputer I'm talking about, which is the data centers."

You can see how easy it is, then, to gin up a strategy whereby each company plays to its strength. Google handles the back end and Apple the front end. Google runs the macrocomputer while Apple supplies the microcomputer.

But instead of taking this easy way out, let's run to the other side of the room to get a longer view of this relationship. If we do we'll see that it is actually quite classical in its form. I wrote many years ago that the best start-ups are composed of symbiotic combinations of hippies and nerds. Hippies have the grand vision while nerds mind the details. Each is less without the other. Think of Jobs and Woz in 1976 and now Jobs and Schmidt (or, more properly, Apple and Google) in 2007. Apple is driven by design, which is entirely subjective, even emotional, while Google is driven by the almighty algorithm, which is only following orders.

So why haven't we seen the fruit of this cooperation? Other than placing Google in the first position on the Safari search bar, there doesn't seem to be all that much Google yet in Apple's work. And I challenge anyone to find evidence of the hand of Apple in anything now coming from the Googleplex.

Maybe these things just take time.

Or maybe (obviously I think this is a LOT more likely) Eric Schmidt has never before had to deal with anyone as brilliant and vexing as Steve Jobs.

Look at Schmidt's background. He went pretty much straight from academia to becoming an early employee of Sun Microsystems, where he grew up with the company and became a star. Then Schmidt went to Novell, an established and dysfunctional company in crisis, and failed miserably. Now he's at Google and again a star. What can we learn from these earlier experiences that will help us predict what comes next? Plenty.

Eric Schmidt succeeded at Sun because everyone else there came from a similar background. Schmidt established himself as the company was establishing itself, so he helped to form the culture. He left Sun ostensibly because the Novell opportunity came up, but his willingness to leave probably says something about Sun, which was at a point where it, too, was starting to struggle a bit. Sun seemed on top of the world in 1997 when Schmidt left, but everyone at the top knew the company had been saved by the dot-com boom and that it was luck more than ability. Schmidt wanted to go someplace where he'd finally be the one in control and logic could prevail once more. Silly him, he chose Provo.

At Novell Schmidt attempted to take control of a company that had been a cult of personality -- Ray Noorda's. Logic had never prevailed at Novell and Schmidt, as an outsider, was never in a position to really impose it. Unlike at Sun, Schmidt hadn't grown up with the Novell people, and having not gone to BYU, he had little in common with their culture. Schmidt was smart enough for the job but turning around Novell couldn't be accomplished on brainpower alone. The guy never had a chance.

So Schmidt fled to Google, having been introduced there by Sun co-founder Andy Bechtolscheim, who really has a Midas touch in these things. Google was another Sun. The founders came from the same background and had the same values as Schmidt. Larry Page and Sergey Brin believed like Schmidt, that being smarter was good enough, that the best technology would win. But even better than Sun, at Google Schmidt was the senior guy, handed immense power by the two founders. And unimpeded this time by a culture he couldn't control, Schmidt has done an amazing job of managing Google to its present market dominance.

Bill Joy used to say that "not all smart people work at Sun," by which he meant that over time the laws of large numbers would prevail and even Sun's day would pass. There is a lot you can do to perpetuate a technology culture and help it grow through creative hiring, but eventually someone somewhere is going to be smarter and clean your clock. It makes sense, but do you think for even a moment on his worst day home from school with the sniffles eating grilled cheese sandwiches and tomato soup that Steve Jobs would ever believe such a thing? Heck no!

Here's the paradox, then. Schmidt has succeeded by playing the odds while Jobs has succeeded by DEFYING the odds. Who is the nerd and who is the hippie here?

This is all a VERY long way of explaining that Apple isn't going to be satisfied making clever little interfaces to a world of information provided -- and owned -- by Google. Schmidt (and Carr) see that Apple doesn't have the supercomputer, but Jobs just as firmly believes that Google doesn't know how to run the supercomputer it has, and besides, he can rent a supercomputer anytime he wants one, so there.

This is not to say that nothing is happening between Google and Apple. I'm sure that plenty is afoot. But I am just as sure that there is an almost continuous conflict over both vision and control, with Steve wanting both.

Why, for example, haven't we seen the vaunted GooglePhone? Because we HAVE seen the vaunted iPhone, that's why. Steve couldn't let Google introduce a phone in the same year that Apple did. He would (and probably did) do anything in his power to stop or delay it.

These are enormous companies with huge piles of money to spend. Google is willing to spend, but Apple really isn't. If a collaboration succeeds it will be controlled by Apple and paid for by Google. For that reason I am sure Apple would gladly trade Akamai, one of its current content distribution partners, for Google, if only to save money. But trading one CDN for another isn't changing the world.

We're approaching a transition point in computing that most people don't understand. It isn't just the Internet or search or access to movies and music that matter, but all of those presented in a technological context that Just Plain Works. The importance of all our digital stuff along with our fear of losing it will shift us more and more toward central backup and storage. And once you have your life sitting on some company's server, are you going to move it on a whim? No, and that means there will be a LOT of money to be made providing these services. Storage and automated backup and probably some form of netboot with a fresh OS image every time is the future of computing whether we're talking about desktops or notebooks or mobile phones.

I think we'll finally see evidence of the Google/Apple relationship toward the end of the year in the 700-MHz wireless spectrum auction. Google needs an advantage in wireless, because the future is mobile and this would appear to be the last chance to own a chunk of that future. Google needs Apple on that team for its financial power, its sense of the market, and to keep Steve Jobs in a known position so he doesn't make any trouble. But I'm also sure Steve is questioning the strategy on a daily basis and twice a month threatening to pull out of the consortium of bidders Google has assembled.

Google will win the spectrum and Apple will make those little devices Carr and Schmidt imagine will be needed to take mobile computing to a new level. But the key difference here is that Apple will make more expensive devices, too, and everything will be labeled Apple and nothing will be labeled Google.

Comments from the Tribe

Status: [CLOSED] read all comments (87)

3D Virtual World Second Life software game simulations take up a lot of storage space. That's the only reason I can think of that the push is on to create more space. Once im guessing people start adding their own content to 3D maps of the Earth in Virtual word simulations the storage space problem would have already been addressed.

I wouldn't store my personal documents on a cyberspace server either. But a game document yes, so it doesn't clutter my hard drive. I read two different companies today that are speeding to market their 3D world products and one claimed it took up a lot of storage space. So buckle up, and get ready for the online storage bonanza!

Ed | Oct 25, 2007 | 6:26AM

Watch for Apple to bring out a $299 laptop only for people subscribing to the iMac service. Apple will hand over the network management to Google.

Norm Potter | Oct 25, 2007 | 10:58AM

Taxation and Green Footprints - The other day I saw a news video of a person desending down over a border fence hanging on with one hand while he looked down for a place to land. In the foreground you see the front end of a car parked and two parking meters, at the same time there's this guy dangling. If I could have copied a still from that video I would have posted it for all. Because a funny qoute came to me... Feed the Meters!

Ed | Oct 26, 2007 | 3:08PM