Apple, Google, and Palm

M.G. Siegler has an intriguing report today regarding the lack of multi-touch support in the current Android OS:

Apple, which of course makes the signature multi-touch mobile device, the iPhone, apparently asked Google not to implement it, and Google agreed, an Android team member tells us.

Further, the Android team member went on to say that they were relieved that Google didn’t go against Apple’s wishes, given the legal storm that appears to be brewing between Apple and Palm, which is using multi-touch technology in its new Pre phone. Even if Apple ultimately decides not to pursue legal action against Palm (it’s not yet clear how likely that is, but Apple does have an impressive array of patents), the situation has likely soured the relationship between the two companies. Google, it seems, wants no part in ruining its relationship with Apple.

This jibes with a story I heard several months ago from a source who works at Apple, which is that Google showed Apple legal a pre-release prototype of the HTC G1, specifically to avoid patent-related disputes. According to my source, in addition to multi-touch, the other feature that Apple objected to was using a standard headphone jack. Apple apparently owns a patent on controlling software using buttons connected by a standard 3.5mm headphone jack (at least for music and video playback controls), and would not grant Google a license to the patent. Hence the G1’s use of a proprietary ExtUSB port rather than a standard 3.5mm headphone jack.

My source’s information was third-hand, and I found the idea that Google would show Apple the G1 before it was released a little hard to believe, so I didn’t publish it. (You know there’s no way that Apple is showing pre-release iPhone hardware or software to Google — so why would Google do this?) But now Siegler has an “Android team member” telling a similar story.

Siegler adds:

While the connection between Apple and Palm would seem like it should be strong, given how many former Apple employees now work at Palm, Google and Apple are actually more aligned. Not only does Google specially tailor a ton of its products for the iPhone (both with apps like Maps and Google Search, and specially formatted webpages), but its chief executive, Eric Schmidt, is on Apple’s board of directors. And don’t underestimate the fact that both share a chief rival: Microsoft.

Google and Apple do have a sort of kinship. They compete very little overall — Apple makes money by selling computing hardware products; Google makes money through search advertising. Android-vs.-iPhone OS is the biggest exception, and Schmidt has stated that he recuses himself from iPhone-related matters in Apple board meetings. But Google did not write the iPhone’s built-in Maps or YouTube apps; Apple did. Google and Apple collaborated to some degree on how these apps talk to Google’s back-end, but the iPhone apps themselves were designed and written by Apple. Google’s own iPhone apps, like the Google Search app, have a decidedly Google-ish aesthetic.

Unlike Siegler, I think the large number of recent Apple employees now working at Palm on the Pre suggests that the relationship between the two companies is cold — ice cold. What I heard last month at Macworld Expo is that Palm has a standing offer for engineers at Apple to jump ship, with a starting salary of 1.5 times their current Apple salary. More obviously, Palm’s core business — selling handheld computing hardware — is directly competitive to one of Apple’s core businesses.

I wouldn’t hold my breath waiting for Palm CEO Ed Colligan or former Apple senior VP Jon Rubinstein to get a seat on Apple’s board.