Why Apple and Google Need Each Other

In the world of technology, drama is a valuable commodity. Disruptive change may happen in the minutiae of software code or the gradual execution of a business plan, but we see its effects in the dramatic narratives of companies rising and falling, or getting locked in combat with each other. Which is why the rivalry between Google (s goog) and Apple (s aapl) is such a compelling story.

It’s so tempting to get drawn into the ego battles between Steve Jobs and the Google triumvirate while placing bets on who will win that it’s easy to forget a deeper truth about this rivalry: Google and Apple need each other.

They both have a deep desire to stake out claims on the mobile web, but the mobile web is in a nascent stage. In order to develop, it needs to have both rigid structure and a sometimes reckless creativity. Structure is necessary to provide a strong foundation and a set of standards everyone can understand. And creativity is essential to bringing the innovative potential of the mobile web into full bloom.

This dichotomy was present when the Internet began to develop in the early 90s. Many people who came online then did so through America Online’s (s aol) walled gardens, a safe little enclave where consumers and content providers alike could create the rules of a new medium. Then the web itself took off and sites like Yahoo (s yhoo) and GeoCities offered a much more creative environment to explore what else could be done.

Now it’s happening again, only with Apple and Google. Apple’s stern and unforgiving approach to the iPhone offers the structure this new medium needs to succeed. Cupertino’s control-freak tendencies stretch from enforcing adherence to ever-changing app guidelines to banishing plastic screen protectors from its retail stores.

Google’s approach is nearly the opposite, much more open and free-wheeling. Its Android OS, based on the Linux kernel, has so many versions available the company is struggling to consolidate them. The Android Market is such an unregulated affair that it’s hard for anyone to count the number of apps on sale.

Google’s culture has built into it a tolerance for the failures that come with creative experiments. Its 70-20-10 rule seems rooted on that spirit of tolerance — how many companies require employees to spend time on something that may never fly? — and Google has floated so many failed ideas it’s hard to keep track of them all. Apple, by contrast, starts with an instinctive idea of how consumers will experience its products and fits everything, even the ecosystem of apps that extends beyond its corporate walls, into making it work.

It’s in the tension between these two companies and their respective cultures that the mobile web is being forged. But as America Online found out, the walls eventually come down as consumers grow more comfortable with the new medium and desert the walled garden. That would suggest the balance will tip in favor of Google.

But I would be surprised if Apple isn’t anticipating this evolution. Right now, iPhone owners are experiencing the mobile web through the 150,000 or so apps it offers through the App Store. But Apple has also backed HTML5, which allows a smartphone browser to have rich app-like features without requiring any new software to be downloaded. Just as people stopped downloading AOL’s software and switched to browsers, we may well abandon most of the apps on our phones today.

Both companies will continue to play a major role on the mobile web, but I doubt either will ever gain the upper hand. This dramatic tension between Apple and Google may be around for a long time. So executives at both might as well get used to it.

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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