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.

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

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.

Google

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.

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