Apple Inc.’s worldwide legal assault against South Korean electronics giant Samsung Corp isn’t being fought out in the Mekong Delta or Bay of Pigs, but it still brings back memories of the Cold War’s regional conflicts. Back then, the United States and the communist powers didn’t dare face off directly and risk world-melting conflagration. Instead we fought it out through a host of small client states like Vietnam and Cuba.
Even though the creator of the famed iPhone and iPad won a billion-dollar patent judgment against Samsung last year, it was really aiming at Google Inc., creator of the Android software that now drives most of the world’s smartphones and tablet computers. Android’s popularity has ravaged Apple’s market share and cost it billions, and Samsung is the biggest and most profitable maker of Android products. But Samsung also makes the memory chips and processors that power Apple’s devices. So Apple seeks merely to punish Samsung, even as it nourishes futile dreams of annihilating Google.
How’d it come to this? Longtime Wired editor Fred Vogelstein lays it out in his engaging and informative new book. It’s a story that goes well beyond the head-to-head slugging match between two mighty companies. Along the way, Vogelstein serves up a lucid overview of the computing and communications industries that Apple and Google have done so much to transform.
In his largely chronological study, Vogelstein shows how this war began as a lover’s quarrel. Apple and Google were so closely allied that Google chief executive Eric Schmidt sat on Apple’s board and took the stage with Apple’s late CEO Steve Jobs in 2007 to help introduce the
iPhone. Google engineers developed versions of the company’s mapping and search software specifically for the iPhone.
As Vogelstein reminds us, the original iPhone was something of a kludge. It lacked a GPS navigation chip, 3G data networking, and even the ability to search for a name in the phone’s address book. Most remarkably, Apple originally had no intention of allowing outside software developers to write programs for the iPhone. Jobs grudgingly changed his mind, only to discover that the sale of these phone apps would generate billions in additional profits.
Google had begun working on its own smartphone technology back in 2005. Instead of building phones, Google wanted to create a software suite that any phone maker could install on its hardware. It was the same strategy that had made Microsoft Corp.’s Windows so successful — but with a major difference. While Microsoft sold Windows, Google proposed to give the software away and make its money from the advertising revenue generated by phone users visiting Google-owned Internet sites, as Vogelstein notes.
Android came to market about a year after the iPhone and barely registered a pulse until Motorola introduced the Droid in late 2009. It was a massive hit, the first truly popular Android phone. But plenty more were to follow, especially phones carrying the Samsung brand.
Jobs, who was battling the pancreatic cancer that would kill him a couple of years later, regarded Android as the ultimate betrayal, crammed with features that in his view had been stolen from Apple by an erstwhile friend, according to Vogelstein. But Apple couldn’t sue for damages. What damages? Google doesn’t charge a dime for Android software. Hence the proxy wars that have seen Apple, Samsung, and other Android device makers filing suits and countersuits on three continents.
Who’s winning? Apple’s still the most profitable maker of smartphones and tablets, and it still commands 40 percent of the American smartphone market. But the proliferation of cheap Android-based phones and tablets from dozens of manufacturers have taken a heavy toll. Worldwide, 80 percent of new smartphones run Android and about 70 percent of tablets. All the courtroom victories in the world aren’t much use against numbers like these.
The fight between Apple and Google carries no risk of global annihilation. Instead, the rise of the smartphone and the tablet have unchained us from our desktops and broken the power of personal computer monopolist Microsoft. And consumers have been rewarded with mobile devices far more capable and versatile than we’ve ever known. In his well-researched and richly entertaining chronicle of the mobile technology wars, Vogelstein reminds us that the rest of us often have plenty to gain when corporate giants do battle.
Hiawatha Bray can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.