This week pushed the battle between Google and Apple — already one of the most contentious match-ups in the digital world — into an even bigger spotlight. Google has come out with multiple launches that make it clear the company is going after Apple on a number of fronts. It also wants, clearly, to be the champion of the “open” model in virtually every business it is in (with the exception of search, of course), and to position itself as the defender of that model against proprietary offerings. For the most part, that means going head-to-head with Apple.
The most obvious indication of Google’s open approach came during the company’s I/O conference, a gathering for developers in San Francisco that is Google’s version of Apple’s iconic WDC (Worldwide Developers Conference). Google made a point of having Adobe take the stage to talk about how its Flash technology is being integrated into Google’s launch of Google TV, a service that will be built into televisions by Sony, and also into set-top boxes from Logitech and others. Because it is based on Android, Google TV allows developers to create applications and widgets that will run on the TV or inside the set-top box, effectively turning the TV into an open-source device. This public gesture of friendship with Adobe seems a clear shot at Apple, who has been waging a very public war with Adobe and recently changed its developer agreement to specifically block attempts to get Flash to work on the iPhone.
Besides the launch of the WebM project as an open standard based on its V8 codec, Google’s claim to being a defender of the open also extends to mobile, where the contrast with Apple is most acute. Apple’s device (or devices, if you include the iPad) are primarily closed, with a very restricted set of functions developers are allowed to access or make use of in apps. But phones based on Google’s Android operating system are available from a growing number of providers, and Google explicitly allows developers to do pretty much whatever they want with the device — including altering and/or replacing some core functions of the phone.
Google is also extending its open approach into the book world: It is expected to launch Google Editions later this year, which will offer e-books in a variety of formats and for any device with a web browser — unlike Amazon and Apple, both of which restrict their e-books to their own specific devices. Google also said at I/O that users will be able to stream music to their Android-powered devices and hinted there might even be an iTunes-style music store/service in the works.
The challenge for Google now is to somehow make all of these open attempts succeed — or at least matter — and that’s a very tall order. As brilliant and successful as the company has been in search and search-related advertising, very few of its non-search efforts have paid off. Android appeals to open-source advocates and those who dislike Apple’s controlling nature, but there are plenty of users who don’t seem to mind Apple’s control, so long as it results in products and services that are easy to use and less chaotic than some open-source alternatives. Google TV may be more open than its competitors, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it will be any more successful than Apple TV.
The reality is that simply being open as opposed to closed isn’t going to be enough for the company to build any of these ventures into sustainable businesses of their own. Google will have to prove that it can also produce enjoyable, full-featured and easy-to-use services — or Apple will win.