Dogfight: Inside The iOS vs. Android Smartphone Wars [Interview]

Dogfight: Apple vs. Google

To mark the release of Fred Vogelstein’s new book “Dogfight: How Apple and Google Went To War And Started A Revolution”, Cult of Mac chatted to the author to gets his thoughts on the iOS vs. Android smartphone wars, writing a book without Apple’s approval, and why both sides could stand to learn a thing or two from their rival.

Cult of Mac: On the surface, Google and Apple are in two different businesses. Why is it inevitable they would clash?

Fred Vogelstein: It’s an interesting question, and one that I was asked a lot when I first started talking about [Apple and Google’s] rivalry three or four years ago. There was a very powerful pushback from people who would tell me ‘they’re not in the same business, what are you talking about?’ Technically that’s true, but only technically — because they’re both going after the same customers.

It’s very much the same way that Apple and Microsoft weren’t technically in the same business in the 1980s and 90s, because Microsoft made its money selling software, and Apple made its money selling the whole box.

Then, Apple was in the PC business and Microsoft was in the software business. But they were both ultimately trying to build the same platform. That’s the same thing happening with Google and Apple. If developers conclude that iOS is no longer a vibrant ecosystem for what they do, that they can get better distribution and make more money developing exclusively for Android, that will get in the way of Apple’s ability to sell devices.

In other words, yes, they generate their revenues differently — but the foundations of those revenue streams is the software platforms both are building and competing for market share and dominance in. Ultimately what both companies worry about is that history suggests that in this business there can only be one real winner.

Jobs was among the most passionate CEOs we’ve ever seen, so when Google started to compete with him I think it was inevitable that he was going to react badly to it…

CoM: Was the Google/Apple clash bound to get personal? Walter Isaacson talked about how discussing Android got Steve Jobs “angrier than [he] had ever seen him.”

FV: I think so. I actually started to wonder if things were going to go in that direction as soon as the iPhone came out. The thing that makes writing about high-tech different to writing about other industries is that most [big high tech] companies are still run by their founders. As a result, everything gets taken much more personally than it would if, for example, they were running ExxonMobil or another giant corporation.

Steve Jobs remembered — and Larry and Sergey remember — what it’s like to get their company out of the garage, and the many, many, many times during their first five years that they were insane: with people who were older, wiser, richer telling them that what they were doing was nuts. So when companies like Apple and Google are attacked, their founders react as if they are being attacked personally. It’s also not really an exaggeration to say that Jobs was among the most passionate CEOs we’ve ever seen, so when Google started to compete with him I think it was inevitable that he was going to react badly to it.

CoM: You talk in the introduction to “Dogfight” about how this wasn’t just a story about two companies (albeit large ones), but rather — and I paraphrase Martin Heidegger here — a bigger question concerning technology. What is that question? What do you view Google and Apple as companies saying about technology here in 2013? Is there a larger ideological conflict at work here?

FV: Going back to 2010, which is when I first started considering this topic, one of the things I kept doing was trying to put a frame around this fight. At that point, I couldn’t put my finger on exactly what it represented.

It seemed quite valid for someone to say that, for instance, Facebook was just as important, or Amazon was just as important, or maybe even Microsoft or Netflix — in terms of telling us what the future of technology had to offer. I spent a lot of time thinking this question through, because I wanted to ensure that the frame I put around it for my book was an accurate one.

It’s absolutely true going forward that all of those other platforms I mentioned are going to be hugely influential — but the thing that those other companies don’t have is control of the endpoint. Because they don’t have control of the Android or iOS devices they ultimately have a lesser say in what consumers see and don’t see. Apple and Google don’t throw their weight around routinely, but the fact that everyone knows that they could has a very big impact on the way all the other companies who want their applications to run on top of those platforms behave.

Vogelstein believes that Apple vs. Google was always going to turn personal before too long

Vogelstein believes that Apple vs. Google was always going to turn personal before too long

CoM: You acknowledge at the end of the book that you had no support from Apple in writing “Dogfight.” Was that a challenge?

FV: I’ve been a journalist long enough to know that you don’t write a book about Apple expecting them to participate. However, there’s a misconception that the only way to get good information about a company is through on-the-record interviews with executives at the top. Those are nice to have, but they’re not really essential.

Most of the time that you speak to executives the conversation is very scripted and choreographed, designed to reveal as little as possible. It’s always useful to have those conversations, but for raw information it’s more valuable to speak to the people in the trenches.

I wasn’t intimidated [about Apple’s refusal to get involved with the book] because I had already spoken to many of these people, and knew that I would be able to get a good picture of what went on from the people actually doing the work. I’m not sure that speaking to Steve Jobs or Tim Cook about the day the iPhone was unveiled, for example, would have given me any better a sense of what went on, than what I was able to convey in the book about the engineers on the front line sweating all the details.

It seems pretty clear that Google is winning — and actually faster than I thought would happen.

CoM: Is there a risk when you’re writing a book like this that depends on real-time reportage that can’t get the kind of narrative distance you need in order to make larger arguments? Whatever conflict exists between Apple and Google is still very much going on.

FV: What I thought when I pitched the book was that based on how long the fight between Apple and Microsoft went on for, this fight would continue for a very long time. The trick for me was to try and find the right altitude to tell the story at. How do you tell a story that, at a granular level, is moving very quickly, while also ensuring that the book has some shelf life? I just hoped to bring enough details to the table that it would add something to the discussion. Whether I have or not will likely be determined over the coming months.

CoM: I don’t think it’s giving anything away to ask who you view as currently winning the Google vs. Apple “war” — and why?

FV: It seems pretty clear that Google is winning — and actually faster than I thought would happen. [Over the past couple of days] Eric Schmidt put up a post talking about converting from iPhone to Android. He didn’t do that on a whim —and obviously feels like things are moving in Android’s direction fast enough that he can get as aggressive as he now is. To be fair, the fight in the US is much tighter than it is elsewhere in the world. Ultimately I think that Google is going to win because Steve Jobs is no longer alive. Apple’s success over the last fifteen years has been predicated on the company’s ability to take enormous risks. The iPod, the iPhone, the iPad were all bet-the-company kinds of decisions. Only a founder within an organisation has the credibility to take risks like that. That risk taking ability is the difference between winning and losing.

CoM: What could each side learn from the other?

FV: In the book I talk about the fact that Apple is a company run by designers and marketers, while Google is a company run by engineers. Apple has some of the best engineers on the planet, but the most powerful people at the company are not engineers. At Google it’s almost the inverse.

For years, the worst marketing job in Silicon Valley was working at Google, because Larry and Sergey don’t essentially believe in marketing at all. For the first eight years, they pretty much succeeded without a marketing department. Now Google is trying to sell things to consumers for money, though, which it has yet to really prove that it can do that. Google could learn a lot from the way Apple sells and markets its products. What Apple could learn from Google is the benefit of being a little more open. Under Steve Jobs, Apple had a formula that worked — but now that Jobs is gone they should examine whether having just a handful of executives able to see everything that is going on in the company is a good idea.

CoM: You talk about smartphones and tablets in the book, but what about wearable electronics? With Apple keen to move into this area, and Google being very excited about the possibilities of Google Glass, is this the next frontier of the conflict?

FV: I don’t know. Part of it is that I haven’t yet been able to get my head around the importance of wearable electronics as a mass-market product. I mean, Google Glass is cool, but could I see it being worn every day? Not necessarily, since it means changing my behavior and how I interact with my devices in such a radical way.

A smartphone or a tablet is easy to understand by comparison. It’s dangerous as a tech journalist to see an idea and fail to see a product in it, but to imagine a possible battle between Google and Apple over wearable electronics means the working assumption that these devices will sell like hotcakes and create a revolution. I haven’t seen anything that makes me believe that. Yet.

  • aardman

    “The iPod, the iPhone, the iPad were all bet-the-company kinds of decisions. Only a founder within an organisation has the credibility to take risks like that.”

    This is the secret of Apple’s success?

About the author

Luke DormehlLuke Dormehl is a UK-based journalist and author, with a background working in documentary film for Channel 4 and the BBC. He is the author of The Formula: How Algorithms Solve All Our Problems, And Create More and The Apple Revolution, both published by Penguin/Random House. His tech writing has also appeared in Wired, Fast Company, Techmeme, and other publications. He'd like you a lot if you followed him on Twitter.

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