It’s that time of year again when tech journalists get into a frenzy of speculation and excitement: the year in tech is being mapped out based on the news and developments released at Google’s I/O conference, and Apple’s WWDC.
What was particularly interesting this year, though, was not the differences in their strategies but their similarities. In particular, we found three main drivers that unify both companies' strategies, and give a detailed overview of those below.
So why are the strategies similar?
We have come to think of Google and Apple as polar opposites in the tech industry, but both seem to agree on the most important areas to invest in for the future. Ultimately, this is the inevitable result of a maturing market – and that’s mobile.
When a new technology platform emerges, it’s not really known how people will naturally use them: wearables are a current case in point. Early devices are reflections of how their creators envision their usage – not necessarily how they will be used. Consider the first iPhone: Steve Jobs saw the future in mobile web apps, but people loved the built-in version available on your phone, and developers clamoured for access to this exciting new platform. As a result, Apple were forced to change their whole viewpoint.
But, as a platform reaches a mass audience and matures, certain usage patterns naturally emerge and eventually, the various platforms become very similar.
That said, as mobile technology becomes powerful enough to support peripheral devices, from wearables to home automation, both Google and Apple could face difficulty. It is here that the two behemoths will fight for differentiation – not on features, but on ecosystem and how well you can bring other devices into your playpen.
Traditionally, Google and Apple have seen those ecosystems differently. Apple, for example, have always gambled on being able to operate smoothly within their own ecosystem. However, with the release of iOS8 last year – not to mention the launch of the Watch, and with HomeKit devices due to hit the market – the nature of the Apple ecosystem is changing fast to more adopt a more open approach to peripheral devices and services.
With Google, however, and its origins in web services, the question of interoperability is different. It’s less about supporting peripheral devices – Google has always done that, although admittedly not consistently - and more about streamlining and standardising the experience. Google’s approach to interoperability is focused – and dependent – on using their server to sync up all of your information via a single Google account. The Chromecast standard, the development of Brillo and using Android Wear to control all wearables are all evidence of a drive towards smoother, more intuitive interoperability.
In its youth, mobile technology focused on adding sensors and processors to devices in order to empower new consumer features. However, with a maturing landscape, one of consumer tech’s biggest challenges is what we do with the glut of data these processors and sensors capture.
Mobile and wearables, in particular, aggregate a vast amount of data: including health and fitness, location and personal lifestyle data by the Terabyte. Couple more powerful devices with more abundant internet bandwidth, and you have the perfect place to organise all of this data. This leaves an area of computing that is in its infancy and ripe for disruption: predictive analysis.
Clearly Google has a head start with Google Now and the even more contextually aware Google Now on Tap. They have already been doing some predictive analytics based on calendar events, location, natural language processing and user preferences. This all lines up with Google’s historic strategy of utilising their vast experience with machine learning algorithms.
Apple have gone down a (slightly) different road in that they have focused on the natural language processing (Siri), using it to drive the organisation of data on the device. Google’s advantage here is that they have already been able to make Google Now analytics a natural part of the system with its contextual cues. There is a great deal of value in a well-timed contextual cue, presenting a user with functionality without the user having to even remember to do anything. In contrast, you have to command Siri to do something.
Apple acquired Cue back in October 2013, realising that they really needed to catch up with Google in this area. Proactive Assistant and Intelligence API – announced at WWDC – are Apple’s first real steps into the predictive analytics game.
This new ability for iOS to display contextual information when you need it aligns with Google Now and the new search APIs planned for Android M. Similarly, the new photo indexing capabilities added to Siri also aligns with the Google Photos. The goal is to take on Google Now – or at least, that’s what it looks like. Even Google News will have a native competitor on iOS.
However, if we look carefully at the way Apple’s technology works, there is clearly a difference from the approach Google takes. Apple is not as wedded to the idea that all analytics need to be procedural and based on machine learning. Instead, Apple believes in injecting a human element into the mix as well, and this can be seen in the way curation works in both new music streaming service and the News app.
We are on the cusp of entering the age of the true digital assistant, underpinned by the enormous potential of predictive analytics - and it is only going to become more important in the future. As we add more sensors and connected devices everywhere, all that data needs to be focused.
Currently, there might be a data glut, but no one can make the best use of it – and whoever does so will own the future.
The next billion: looking at untapped markets
Opportunities to acquire new customers have been declining in developed countries due to high mobile saturation levels. New developing markets are therefore critical for the future of both companies.
It is widely accepted that consumer tech’s next billion dollars is likely to come from these untapped markets. China and India account for the majority of new mobile connections in the world, yet 70% are feature phones. These markets are ripe for smartphone penetration, except for the one major blocker – lack of good internet infrastructure.
The size of markets that have little to no access online is enormous, and the tech industry is rapidly realising this. Silicon Valley is scrambling to get as many people online as they possibly can. Google are using high altitude balloons and partnerships with SpaceX to bring internet access everywhere. Facebook’s internet.org is another great example.
Of course Google want to bring as many people online as possible. It’s widely understood that the more people that use the internet, the more money Google makes. Android also has a great deal of penetration in the developing world, but the main issues are more likely to be bandwidth and Google haven’t ignored this. You might dismiss Google Cardboard as cheap VR or a gimmick, but it actually works very well in this framework – extremely cheap and simple, yet it can enable transformative educational experiences with the devices that people already own.
Apple has also seen what opening new markets can do. Their major focus on the Chinese market brought in an additional $16.8 billion in Q1 2015. They showed the availability of transit directions in Chinese cities and WeChat on the Apple Watch at WWDC: both are a good indicator that Apple is taking this market very seriously indeed.
This year was also the first time in a long time that Apple didn’t drop support for any older devices. Couple this with their focus on stability and performance on older devices, and their strategy becomes clearer. It’s aimed at the Chinese and developing markets, as more and more people are likely to buy cheaper or older devices/models, and keep them for longer.
This means iOS needs to work efficiently on older models without any noticeable slowdown. Apple have realised this and they are indicating to these markets that they will be fixing the problem. Will this help to make inroads into developing markets and will it help both customer acquisition and retention?
Computing continuously evolves to mean different things over ever emerging new platforms. As new user behaviours emerge and as our data collection and analysis increases exponentially, we will begin to gain truly deep insights and utility. And as more of the world gains access to better infrastructure and connects online, we will see huge shifts in what we want and what we come to expect from our consumer technology.
The only real certainty is that this intense competition between giants like Apple and Google will continue to drive better products and services.