The shifting sands of integrated systems

The shifting sands of integrated systems
We've been reading the Steve Jobs biography, and while reading the section on the iPod, iTunes, and Apple's pivot away from computers, two very important terms stood out: leapfrog and end-to-end. The first is the key to any successful company: if you find yourself behind, catching up isn't good enough, you have to leapfrog the competition. The second has been the key to Apple's success in executing the vision of Jobs with an integrated system that is controled throughout by Apple. However, despite the wildly different strategies employed by Apple and Google, an interesting idea was borne from these two points: Google is doing the exact same thing.

The process is completely backwards from what we've seen, so seeing it happen has been somewhat difficult. Rather than starting with the platform, Google began life with the products and is now trying to create the integrated platform. But, what really hid how similar Google’s strategy is to Apple has been the fact that “end-to-end” doesn't quite mean the same thing any more. Apple was successful because end-to-end meant controlling both the hardware and software from one end of the spectrum (home computers) to the other end (consumer devices) with content linking the chain between the two. Now, the end points on that chain have become unglued and somewhat irrelevant. Mobile devices have supplanted the home computer as the anchor that always connects users to their data. Also, while the content link used to be formed with FireWire and USB cables, now the content link is created by the Internet and the Cloud, which further removes consumer hardware from the spectrum.

So, where Apple created the Mac, iPod, iPhone, OS X and iOS and connected them through cables and iTunes, Google has created only the software on each step of the chain. In a way, it's emulating Apple's integrated systems philosophy, but more specifically, it's the pivot that Microsoft should have completed long ago. As a software company, Microsoft would have had to follow the path that Google has in order to succeed, but instead Microsoft tried to follow the Apple path and create hardware with the Zune (now dead) and XBox (successful, but only starting to be integrated with other Microsoft systems.) Microsoft tried to catch up with the competition, but Google leapfrogged into the cloud.

The ends and the links

As Gina Trapani said when Google first announced the Chromebook, "Apple makes beautiful computers, and Google makes computers disposable." That is true, but even with disposable computers, a user can have an integrated experience, because more and more our lives don't live in boxes, they live in the cloud. Almost any activity can begin life on any device, perhaps starting on a work computer, transferring to a mobile phone, then finished on a home computer or tablet. More and more, everything we need is synced between all of our computers. For example, in Chrome all of a user’s settings, bookmarks, and history sync between any of the computers that you may use on a regular basis regardless of the operating system. And, if your work lives in Google cloud products, it will then sync to an Android device with ease device.

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The end points of the integrated system are becoming irrelevant ( at least in Google's view). It doesn't matter if you're using a Samsung mobile device or Motorola, and it doesn't matter if your computer is Mac, Windows or Linux, because Google lives everywhere. Android mobile devices are made by dozens of manufacturers, and Chrome can be run on any major desktop OS (and has even become its own OS.) Apple is trying to catch up to these features with iCloud, meanwhile Google is trying to catch up on the integrated content of iTunes. But, what is far more difficult to do with the modern computing landscape is that Apple is trying to keep hold of the end points of the integrated system and still control the whole spectrum.


Apple's iCloud and its predecessor MobileMe have been Apple's solution to this issue. As computer products become more mobile, and users can do more things with mobile devices, there needs to be a more flexible connection between devices and user data. The idea that you have to connect a mobile device to your home or work computer in order to access your data is a thing of the past, and one that Apple has struggled to leave behind. Of course, Apple's solution means that everything is better if you own an Apple computer, but iCloud is available on any computer with iTunes (no Linux unfortunately), and will sync everything between devices for you. The trouble is that the iCloud products are not as matured as we would expect from Apple.

A big part of the design of the iPod was in relegating certain tasks to the device best suited for that task, so playlists and organization were left as part of iTunes rather than part of the iPod. In the same way, Apple is trying to put cloud functionality in place that make sense, but relegate other functions to traditional computers, smartphones and tablets as best suits each device. Apple has built a full suite of cloud services, including photo storage, music storage, an office suite, and personal data syncing (contacts, e-mail, calendar), but the suite is not full featured as yet. There is no way to edit photos, stream music, or store/stream video and there is still no web-based online store for all of these things. Additionally, if you want to be able to continue work in an office suite from mobile to desktop or to the web, you have to use Apple’s iWork products specifically. That means, you either use the web a Mac or you don’t use it at all. Apple has all of these features complete and ready for desktop use, but that means you have to have your computer around at all times and that isn’t the way the world is moving. More and more, each device is fitting into a niche in a user’s arsenal. Smartphones are for communication and discovery, tablets for content consumption and light productivity, and computers for more intense productivity or advanced gaming/video editing. Google has moved past the computer into the cloud, and has all of those products built (although the music store has yet to be launched,) but Google hasn't integrated the services yet and has left out advanced needs.


Advanced computing is a niche market. Few people do intense photo or video editing, or hardcore gaming which would still require a traditional PC, so Google is leaving that segment out and aiming for the mass market. However, Google is still lacking in integration, which is a key part of the process, because a company can have products from end-to-end, but the products need to be tied together properly, and offer a cohesive experience. The cohesive Google experience, began with Chrome, which we mentioned can be used on any platform and will sync data. And, with Chromebooks, Chrome can be used as a platform itself under the idea that almost everything we do on a daily basis is in a browser anyway, so why do you need the underlying OS? Google has also been rolling out UI updates to all of its web products that bring a unified feel to Google's web services. The UI started with Google Plus, then moved to Search and News, Calendar, Picasa (as its been joined with Plus, and Blogger. The UI changes have also been made available in limited form with a theme in Gmail, but will come to Gmail and Reader soon. Additionally, as we’ve covered in detail, Ice Cream Sandwich is bringing a much more cohesive and unified UI to Android.

However, even though Google has a more robust suite of web products than Apple, if you dive a bit deeper into Google products, many are still autonomous islands with limited integration. Google Plus has brought together some of the products by connecting functionality, especially with Picasa, but many still have no integration. For example, Blogger can't post to Plus, nor can a backup copy be saved in Docs. You can't start a post in Docs, then post it to Blogger or Plus. YouTube has seen the most integration, within other Google products with easily embedded videos, and group viewing in Hangouts, but often Google products have been islands rather than an integrated platform. Google has built the products, the backbone, and the content stores (the Music store is on the horizon), and it seems more and more that Android will become the platform that binds it all together.

Google doesn't want to abandon the web as a platform, which is why Chromebooks were created, and why the web products have gotten a unifying UI overhaul, but for many non-traditional devices there needs to be an underlying operating system. And, as Microsoft proved long ago, making that underlying system is the key to market share. Android has been that platform. It began life on mobile phones, but has quickly moved to tablets, in-car systems, media players, TVs and plenty of other consumer electronics.

The ad-hoc system

Still, Android has its limitations and flaws, but its greatest strength is its malleability and adaptability. With Apple products, you use the devices that Apple creates in the ways that Apple wants. This creates a stable environment with a vastly better design possibility, and often a more intuitive UI, but it also makes it rigid and not easy to customize. Apple products are designed to keep you in the Apple world: iPhones lead to Mac and iPads and iTunes and visa versa. Google designs products to get you out into the (virtual) world.

Google has been quickly adding features to it as well, to make sure Android can scale to any device, and from each device have the potential to create ad-hoc systems. A big part of this has been the ability to scale UI, and use the fragments system to allow apps to work on any device from a smartphone to a TV. The news was understated because it was announced at the same time as the incredibly ambitious Android@Home project, but the addition of USB peripheral support to Android tablets in Honeycomb and now with Ice Cream Sandwich in phones has far reaching potential. Just as the Chromebook made computers disposable, this move can turn almost anything into a system. A tablet with a keyboard and mouse is suddenly a productivity system. A tablet with a game controller is suddenly a gaming system. A TV can be either one with Google TV 2.0 and the right peripherals. And, the web is always the backbone of every Google system.

Suddenly this makes the entire computing ecosystem ripe with potential, because as we've all dreamed of for a long time, we now have the pieces needed to truly make any object into a smart object. Add Android and a camera to a refrigerator and you have a system that will create shopping lists, warn you of expiring food, and alert you about sales on your favorite products. Add Android and a screen to a stove, and as Jeff Jarvis has suggested, you have a system to give you recipes, or set the heat and timer for cooking. Add Android to your TV and the mess of finding the content you want turns into a system that brings your favorite content to you, regardless of if it exists on the web or through your cable box. Add Android to a car and you have an integrated navigation, dictation, search, and communications system.

This is the real threat of Android to Apple. Apple may be the most valuable company on Earth, but it can't exist in every product market. Apple has been able to take over the music player business, reinvent the smartphone and tablet businesses, and had a head start on digital distribution of content. But, Apple can only exist in the tracks that it builds itself because of the design philosophy of Steve Jobs. Apple needs to have employees smart enough to see the next bubble, as Steve had a knack to do, and push the company into that market. Rumor has it that an Apple TV is in the works, but that still just covers a certain market. Google has created a product that can exist in any market and adapt to almost any need.

Even better for Google is that the company now has Matias Duarte and a team of designers that understand that a utilitarian product doesn't need to be ugly. It's highly unlikely that Google's design will ever rival the simple beauty of Apple, and the hardware side of Android will always require work from the consumer to find the best option, but there is no doubt that Google, with Android and its web products, has leapfrogged all traditional computing platforms.

Never count out the big dog

Of course, traditional computing platforms are evolving as well. While Android has the light-weight flexibility to be run on almost any device, Microsoft still holds the vast majority of the traditional PC market. This adds a wrinkle to the Android Everywhere possibility, because Windows is already everywhere. Microsoft has been diligently building up its web products, and has been building in the hooks to Windows and with the Azure cloud systems. The question will be in how Windows 8 hits. The rumored plan with Windows 8 is to bring the "one OS to rule them all". Windows 8 will be the same system, running the same programs (and legacy software) on PCs, tablets, and likely phones. If Microsoft were to add in the XBox, you've suddenly got the fabled "3 screens", including TV, PC, and mobile.

The question remains if that will be enough to leapfrog into markets where Microsoft doesn't dominate (or even compete). Microsoft still doesn't have much market share in mobile, but that has the potential to change quickly with Windows 8. Microsoft also doesn't have feature parity to Google with many of its web products, but is ahead of Apple, and Microsoft's products do tend to have the most users. Microsoft also doesn't have the easily adaptable system that can scale to other consumer products like Android. Still, Microsoft is a major force, and though it has been quiet, it certainly isn't out of the game, because while it may not have all the pieces in place for the new version of an end-to-end system, it already has the users.


Users are notoriously lazy when it comes to changing their habits. That is why those who choose iOS or Android tend to stick with it. That is why Internet Explorer is still the dominant browser in the world. Google’s web products have been gaining steam, and that could be due to the success of Android. Android is more valuable if you inhabit the Google ecosystem, just as iOS is more valuable for people deep into Apple, and Windows Phone is more valuable for Windows Live users.

We have been seeing users shifting their web and desktop habits to better fit their mobile lifestyle, but what really pushes users to change is the integrated systems. Apple and Microsoft have a leg up on Google in that respect right now. An iPhone user is more likely to get a Mac, use iCloud, or live in iTunes because of the end-to-end philosophy of Apple. With Microsoft, the trend is reversed, because Windows Phone hasn’t hit critical mass, so it has been more of a slow migration of Windows Live users to WP. Google is, as usual, more messy. If you are in its products, you’ll find more value in Android, but neither side really drives users into more Google products. The end points of the “end-to-end” integration may be changing, but integration is still the most important part, especially for Google.

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