Hope You Enjoy the Smell of Napalm in the Morning

This lengthy New York Times story on the escalating rivalry between Apple and Google hit while I was at SXSW; I didn’t have time to do much more than point out the curious choice to describe Apple employees as Steve Jobs’s “underlings”. (Perhaps “minions” is next.)

My quick impression of the story based on the first few paragraphs was that there wasn’t much meat to it, that it was the sort of “conflict makes for a good story so let’s play up any bit of conflict we can find” report that we often see. But the story actually has some interesting details that were news to me. For example: Apple nearly bought AdMob, but Google snatched them away with a higher offer. And, regarding Bill Campbell, who is co-chairman of Apple’s board and a long-time advisor at Google:

While Mr. Campbell has tried to be a diplomat and smooth over the problems between Mr. Jobs and Mr. Schmidt, the task hasn’t been easy. Mr. Campbell declined to comment for this article, but people briefed on the matter say that throughout last fall, Mr. Jobs and Mr. Schmidt each lobbied Mr. Campbell to sever his connection with the other’s company, at times even giving him ultimatums to do so.

Finally, Mr. Campbell was forced to choose, and according to a person with knowledge of the situation, he dropped his formal responsibilities at Google, although he is still informally mentoring executives there.

Regarding meetings between Apple and Google executives during Android’s gestational period:

Many of those meetings turned confrontational, according to people familiar with the discussions, with Mr. Jobs often accusing Google of stealing iPhone features. Google executives said that Android’s features were based on longstanding ideas already circulating in the industry and that some Android prototypes predated the iPhone.

At one particularly heated meeting in 2008 on Google’s campus, Mr. Jobs angrily told Google executives that if they deployed a version of multitouch — the popular iPhone feature that allows users to control their devices with flicks of their fingers — he would sue. Two people briefed on the meeting described it as “fierce” and “heated.”

And lastly:

Inside both Apple and Google, employees say, the sense of rivalry is intense and a peacemaker is sorely needed. “I’ve never seen anything quite like it in my life,” one Apple employee says. “I’m in so many meetings where so many potshots are taken. It feels weird.”

That last bit, regarding a general belief that Apple is gearing up for war against Google, echoes what I’ve heard lately from several sources who work at Apple. I know that conflict between companies — particularly big companies, and even more particularly big interesting companies like Apple and Google — tends to get played up in the press, often to the point of sensationalism, because conflict is interesting. But I’ve got the growing sense that there’s nothing sensational about it. I think Steve Jobs genuinely sees Google as threatening Apple’s core business. It doesn’t really matter whether he’s right (although the more I consider it, the more I think he is). Jobs believes it, and so Apple is going to war.

Hence the patent suit against HTC. That’s all about Google — about creating a situation where Android is no longer a free operating system for handset makers in the U.S., because the cost of using it is an expensive legal defense against Apple.

Then there are the little things. Last week, for example, Apple hired R.J. Pittman, Google’s director of product management. Apple and Google are big companies with a lot of directors and managers; I very seldom find personnel moves to be newsworthy. But, as Jason Kincaid pointed out:

We’d previously heard that Google and Apple had a gentlemen’s agreement not to poach each other’s employees. Obviously, that’s no longer the case.

I.e. it’s not particularly interesting that Apple hired Pittman, or that Google lost him, but it is interesting that Apple poached a director from Google, period. That didn’t use to happen.

The whole Google-Voice-iPhone-app-rejected-from-the-App-Store thing? The easiest explanation I see now is that Apple declined it out of competitive spite with Google. Apple doesn’t want Google’s “phone stuff” on the iPhone.

Google, clearly, knows what it’s getting into. This story from The Times on Wednesday reports that Google, working with Intel and Sony, is also working on a competitor to Apple TV (and thus the iTunes Store for video). The unofficial partnership Apple and Google forged a decade ago grew during a period when the two companies were focused on very different markets. Now, their sights for the coming decade are on the same markets: mobile computing devices and entertainment. Post-PC computing, if you will.

Further, I suspect that the time for peacemaking is over. The cold war has ended and the shooting war has begun. One can argue about whether the seal was broken by Google with the Nexus One or by Apple with the HTC patent lawsuit, but at this point, it’s on.

Apple faces more decisions than Google in such a war, because Apple has products that use Google services; Google doesn’t have products that use Apple services. Those rumors that Safari and/or MobileSafari might switch to Bing as the default search engine? I give more credence to them now. The problems for Apple there are that (a) Microsoft is every bit as hell-bent as Google to take on the iPhone; and (b) Bing, improved though it may be, is not as good a search engine as Google.

I can’t see Apple building its own search engine, but perhaps they really are building their own maps service — hence their purchase of PlaceBase last July.

Perhaps the “war” analogy is stretched. But the situation has gotten past the usual level of competitive vigor. Patent lawsuits are not usual. Poaching employees is not usual. Forcing a mutual advisor like Bill Campbell to choose sides is not usual. Jobs’s widely reported remarks at a company-wide address last month (“Make no mistake, Google wants to kill the iPhone”) are not usual. Eric Schmidt’s dismissal of the iPad as “a large phone” is not usual.

I’m not sure what to expect next, other than for things to get uglier.

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