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Is Apple's war against Google hurting iOS?

Posted: , posted by Michael H.

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Is Apple's war against Google hurting iOS?
One of the first quotes from the biography of Steve Jobs to really catch fire was when he allegedly said that he would wage "thermonuclear war" on Google because of he perceived Android to be a copy of Apple's iOS. Of course, Jobs had a tendency to exaggerate anything he perceived to be "stealing" of Apple's ideas while simultaneously ignoring any times Apple did the same to other companies. The "thermonuclear war" was certainly an exaggeration, but Apple has been systematically distancing itself and iOS from Google for quite a while now. 

At first, Apple made a couple subtle changes to the system, which didn't actually remove any Google features, but rather removed Google's name. As it stands now, only the search box in Safari carries the name Google. Apple started out by changing the name of Google Maps to simply Maps, and the search box from the home screen doesn't mention Google, it simply says "Search the Web". But, since then Apple has been taking direct aim at Google products within iOS. 

Direct attacks

The first direct attack came in the form of Siri. With the introduction of Siri, searches initiated by voice didn't pull results from Google, but instead pulled from sources like Wikipedia, Wolfram Alpha, and others. So, each Siri search directly took away from Google traffic. For all of the hype about Siri being a voice command personal assistant, one of the main aims of the product from Apple's point of view was to take away from Google search. 

This was especially noticeable in the fact that Siri was not a fully matured product at launch. Apple has a reputation for holding features until they meet certain internal standards, but it's hard to believe that Siri met those standards. Right out of the gate, Siri had lost functionality from its original incarnation as a standalone app. Then after the launch of the iPhone 4S, there were issues with the Siri servers, which went down multiple times leaving the product completely useless. And, even now there are quite a few users that continue to be disappointed with the voice recognition of Siri as well as the inaccurate responses to queries that the service gives. 

Siri was a necessity for Apple to have a killer marketing feature for the iPhone 4S, but it definitely felt rushed and not up to the standards that Apple usually sets for itself. We certainly expect Siri to get better with iOS 6, but the service has been in desperate need of updates, but hasn't really gotten much because of the nature of iOS updates and the strict yearly cycle that Apple adheres to. 

The next shot was one that was a long time coming. We had seen the evidence that Apple was building its own Maps application through a number of acquisitions, and the product is finally coming in iOS 6. We have known for a while that it would be pretty well impossible for Apple to be able to match the functionality found in Google Maps with its own offering. But, we've also known that Apple doesn't have to match Google, because for whatever reason, Google Maps never got any updates with each iteration of iOS. No one is sure whether it was Apple or Google to blame for the lack of updates, but it does mean that Apple has a lower bar to reach as far as the functionality that its users might expect. If Apple can do well enough, maybe users won't even really notice the change, especially since Apple had dropped Google from the Maps name a long time ago, as we mentioned. 

The latest removal

The latest move is one that's generated a lot of buzz as it came out recently that Apple has removed YouTube from the latest version of iOS 6, and that the app has been confirmed to not be baked-in to the OS any more. The big difference here is that unlike the other changes that Apple made to rid itself of Google products, there is no replacement ready for YouTube. We may very well hear about a deal that will have Vimeo baked-in to iOS, but that seems somewhat unlikely. There is a definite possibility that at least part of the decision to remove YouTube was an attack at Google, and part of the plans to remove Google from iOS, but we expect Apple's reasoning (and certainly any official explanation) to be closer to Google's "decoupling" of apps from Android. 

One of the earliest moves that Google made in order to make updates faster was to "decouple" apps like Gmail, Maps, and YouTube from the Android system. This meant that while Google Apps were still pre-loaded on devices, updates for these apps could be pushed out through the Android Market rather than waiting for a full system update. 

Apple doesn't have anything like this, and if an app is going to be updated through iTunes rather than as part of a full system update, the app won't be pre-loaded onto devices. Just like Google Maps for iOS, YouTube for iOS has been in desperate need of an update as both apps steadily fell farther and farther behind their Android counterparts. This is why, it seems reasonable that Apple will just say that the YouTube app will be better as a standalone app than as a core piece of iOS, because the app will be able to get regular updates from Google, and Google has already promised to make YouTube available through the App Store.

The damage done

The trouble with this reasoning is the same trouble we've run across with Google Maps, and alternative browsers on iOS: because of the system limitations, only core Apple apps can be the default handler unless specifically coded by the developer, as Google showed. This means that even though Google will be releasing a standalone Google Maps app into the iTunes store, which could very well be far more feature-rich than the built-in Apple Maps option, it will never be able to handle address links, or requests to Siri for directions. Those will always be routed to Apple's Maps. 

As yet, it's unclear if these same sort of limitations will be placed on YouTube now that it is no longer a core app of iOS. Until now, any links to a YouTube video on iOS would be directed to the YouTube app, but that may not be the case in iOS 6. This would be incredibly frustrating for iOS users, because YouTube is more than just a Google property, it is an Internet staple. There are other video services around, but none really compare to YouTube, and the proliferation of YouTube links makes it hard to avoid. 

After all of this work by Apple, the only Google service that's left as a core part of iOS is the search box in Safari, but right now Apple doesn't really have much of a way around that. With Microsoft pushing Windows 8 tablets and Windows Phone as hard as it can, regardless of market size, Apple isn't too likely to start supporting Bing. That's just choosing the less threatening competitor, it's not a real solution. Apple could switch Google search to something less popular, like DuckDuckGo, but it's hard to imagine casual users accepting that change. 

Apple has always claimed to be a company that was ultimately concerned with the user experience and providing the best experience possible; but, in general, Apple's desire to be rid of all things Google seems to be coming with some pretty big issues for users. Siri has had performance issues, and every time it fails to understand, or fails to find a relevant answer to a question, it still defaults to a Google search. Apple Maps looks like an okay first attempt, but the beta hasn't compared well with Google, and it's unclear whether it can deliver what users expect from a maps app. 

Conclusion

And, when we get right down to it, that's the real problem with all of this: what the users expect. The main reason why Apple is having so many PR problems with Siri is because all of the ads that we see for the product show something that doesn't come close to the reality of using the product. Apple needs to be very careful to manage expectations with iOS 6, but managing expectations, and quelling rumors is not something that comes naturally to Apple, because those things feed into the company's hype machine.  

Casual users have come to expect certain features in a Maps app. Regardless of whether there is Street View, users expect a certain level of street detail, and especially those who have been using Google Maps a lot will be expecting a very extensive database of places, complete with reviews. Users have also come to expect YouTube to not only be a core app of the system, but to be integrated and handle links for YouTube. As yet, we don't know if Apple can meet those expectations, and the company certainly isn't doing anything to manage user expectation. 

It will be nice to get versions of each of these apps that gets updated regularly, but this whole plan by Apple seems to be rife with the potential to backfire. If Apple continues to push towards ridding its system of Google products, it needs to have quality replacements ready at each step. Siri hasn't quite been good enough, but it still uses Google as a fallback. Apple Maps won't have that luxury, and YouTube has no real replacement. 

If users expect a certain level of functionality that isn't there, we could see a pretty vocal dissent, which could lead to more people moving to Android. But, if that looks to be the case, we also could see Apple loosen its grip on default apps on iOS. Remember, Apple eventually gave in and went with Intel for its computers, which in turn allowed for Windows to run on Apple systems. That was considered heresy by the faithful at the time, but it was necessary to allow Apple to continue to thrive as a hardware company, despite the competition with Microsoft (not to mention that the marketing of "the best Windows computer is a Mac" was brilliant). Eventually, Apple may come to realize that mobile is very similar. It's not worth banishing software to the App Store if it hurts the hardware sales. And, whether Apple likes it or not, Google is a great software company, and it makes products that people use, even if they don't use Android.

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