Google on mobiles: a two-way bet

Why does Google - the power behind Android - make such good iOS apps? Perhaps the competition between Apple and Google is more complex than most coverage suggests…

A couple of weeks back, I wrote a (rather futile, I suspect) plea for an end to tech tribalism in online discussions. Here’s another good example of why, in particular, the current Android versus iOS fan war is based on a faulty premise: the two platforms have very different goals:

Android doesn’t have to be the dominant phone platform in order for Google to win, because all that Android is designed to do is to stop Apple – or RIM, or Microsoft, or whoever comes next – from being the only game in town.

Go back two years, to Google I/O 2010, to hear Vic Gundotra spill the beans. Talking about why Google got into the phone business, Gundotra said “If we did not act, we faced a draconian future where one man, one phone, one carrier was the future. That’s a future we don’t want.”

Android isn’t designed to “win”, per se, argues Ian Betteridge. It’s designed to be good enough that nobody can ever dominate the mobile market in the same way that Microsoft dominated the desktop market in the late 90s and onwards. That’s not to say that there won’t be a lot of happy people if it does “win” – it’s just that isn’t the over-riding goal.

And besides, as Betteridge points out in a recent post on his personal blog, there’s plenty of evidence that Google isn’t trying to destroy iOS: mainly, the sheer quality of its recent app releases. Why are apps like the revamped Gmail and the new iPad YouTube app so good? (And if you have an iPad, and you haven’t tried them, you should. They’re both truly excellent apps)

Although Google doesn’t break out how much it makes from ads served to iOS devices, given that iOS drives far more web traffic than Android it’s safe to assume Google serves more web ads to it. And that makes iOS a more profitable platform for Google than Android is.

Given this, why would Google want to damage a platform it makes more money per user from, in favour of a platform it makes less money per user from?

If anything, Google is winning – not by Android dominating, but by making money on iOS and (potentially) Android, while Apple will only ever make money from iOS.

The situation here is more business driven – and more complex – that fan-driven, simplistic winner/loser analysis allows for – and that’s why tribal tech coverage cheapens our understanding of the merging digital world.

Bonus link: if you enjoy really in-depth, financials-based analysis of the mobile phone industry Asymco is a must-read.