Over the last few months, Apple and Google have switched from being brothers in arms to mortal enemies. The media frames this battle as one of Google championing open standards, with Apple as the proponent of locked-down proprietary technology. But despite their fiery feud, the similarity between the two companies is striking.
For years, Google has championed open standards, and this position makes perfect sense. After all, Google depends upon the openness of the Web: if developers were ever to abandon HTML in favor of a proprietary format like Flash, Google would no longer be able to serve its search results.
Open standards are also important to Apple: they played a critical role in the company's much celebrated comeback from near collapse in 1997. Back then, everyone wanted to use Windows applications. The Mac was not Windows compatible, and therefore it seemed doomed. But the Internet came to the rescue with two killer apps: e-mail and Web. Since these were based on open standards, rather than proprietary Microsoft technology, it didn't matter whether you used a Mac or a PC. Suddenly, Apple was back in the game.
In other words, open standards saved Apple and made Google possible. But now, Apple is pushing proprietary App Store apps instead of the Web, and Google is pushing Android marketplace and (stunningly) this week even the Flash plugin.
So what is going on?
Small companies tend to like standards, because they provide an opportunity to compete on a level playing field with the big guys. But when a company grows sufficiently large, proprietary technology becomes attractive, because it locks in customers and locks out competitors. This is what Google's idealistic founders and much of the blogosphere describe as "evil".
But the motivation behind the promotion of proprietary technology is not always evil. Standards may be great for technologies that have already become obvious, mainstream and commoditized, like file sharing, word processing and movie streaming, but they'll never be at the cutting edge of innovation. There are two reasons for this: it is difficult to achieve an industry consensus around a new idea, and there is little incentive for businesses to invest in public domain innovation.
So new ideas, like Apple's multi-touch interface, tend to emerge from proprietary vendors instead. Over time, if these ideas become popular, other vendors develop alternative implementations, and eventually industry consensus will coalesce around an open standard. Which is precisely what happened when the Web replaced proprietary forerunners like AOL, MSN and CompuServe. This is essentially how intellectual property has always worked. Innovators get a temporary monopoly to reap the rewards of their hard work, but eventually, their innovation enters the public domain, so that everyone can freely benefit from it.
With this in mind, the issues underlying the battle between Google and Apple become clearer. Superficially, it may seem like Apple is the villain, pushing proprietary technology, while Google champions openness, but they have far more in common than that. Both companies want the Web to remain open and standards based. Without it, iPhones and iPads would be impossible (we'd still be locked into Windows) and Google would not be able to deliver its search results (we'd still be stuck in AOL's walled garden). But both companies are dependent upon proprietary technology to give them their cutting edge. Apple's proprietary technology is obvious for all to see - you can hold their gadgets in your hands. But don't forget all the proprietary secrets hoarded at the Googleplex. Let's be honest, Google are not about to share their search engine algorithms any time soon.
So, both companies depend on underlying standards, but the proprietary layer they build on top of those standards is where the innovation lies, and where they derive their income. Google and Apple's fight is over who will control this proprietary layer. Both companies recognize that what is proprietary today will be a standard tomorrow - you have to make hay while you can, and then move on to the next innovation. This is in marked contrast to Microsoft, who still seems to expect to earn income today from yesterday's innovations. The underlying open standards of the Internet that has put pay to that "evil" aspiration. It hasn't worked for Microsoft, and you needn't worry about Apple or Google attempting it any time soon.