Strong opinions, weakly held

Who changed the world most, Google or Apple?

A blog post I read earlier by Jesse Brown that’s sophomoric in both premise and conclusion has stuck in my brain, so I may as well write something about it, if for no other reason than so that I can move on to other things. His colleague makes the following assertion:

No company—probably not even Google—and certainly no individual has made as much of a difference or changed the way things work over the past 10 years as Apple has under Jobs.

First, he denies credit to Apple:

Add it all up, and Apple’s biggest impact has been aesthetic. Their products look great and have changed the way lots of other things look. But that’s just it—Apple is all about things. It’s essentially a hardware company, and it’s ill-prepared for a world where objects mean less and information means more. There’s no new God-gadget coming from Cupertino—all Apple can do once it’s done sticking cameras on things and offering them in different colors is to release cheaper iPhones and cheaper iPads, devaluing their gear until the gee-whiz factor is totally gone. This has already happened to the iPod. You probably have a three-old version in a drawer somewhere.

Then, he gives credit to Google:

More than anything, Google has been an accelerator of the greater ambitions of the Internet. Ten years ago, techno-utopians spoke of a future where anyone could be a publisher. Google made random blogs findable and made reader visits bankable. Ten years ago, we heard starry-eyed predictions that any kid could soon have the tools to become a pop star or a filmmaker from their own basement. Now, thanks to Google’s acquisition of YouTube, we take it for granted that this is so. Google preaches “openness,” not because it sounds good, but because the more open and accessible the Internet is to us all, the more money Google makes.

First of all, in his argument against Apple he changes the debate. The question at hand isn’t which company is most likely to change the world over the next ten years, it’s which company changed the world the most over the past ten years. Secondly, he gives credit to Google for acquiring YouTube. Did that really change the world? YouTube was already well on its way when Google bought them out. Anyway, I don’t want to nitpick.

I’ll boil it down to the most world-changing contribution by each company over the past ten years.

Google is the company that improved search engine results enough to really open the Web to the masses. They didn’t invent the search engine, but they did invent PageRank, making search significantly more useful, especially for those who were not search engine experts. Awhile back, I saw a service truck with the terms to use to find them with a Google search painted on the side as part of their contact information. That pretty much says it all.

Apple is the company that brought a real Web browser to the pockets of millions of people. There were other phones that provided “Web browsers,” but before the iPhone the mobile browsing experience did not in any way resemble the experience of using a real Web browser. Once the iPhone was available, it was clear that if you wanted to be a player in smart phones, you needed a device with a screen that was as large as physically possible and that supported a browser that provided a high quality browsing experience. The arrival of the iPhone was the most significant event in telephony since cellular phones were liberated from cars.

Of course both companies have done many other things, but I don’t think any are as significant as those two. Which one made a greater impact? You tell me.


  1. Past ten years, I’d say Google no question. By making search work really well and indexing reference sites like Wikipedia and IMDB, Google made the web something people have integrated into their lives to the point that it’s literally changing our brains, for better or for worse. Wonder about something or someone? Google it, get an answer in 10 seconds.

    Next ten years, I think Apple will do far more, given their commanding lead of the post-PC era, not just in terms of early market share lead or better quality software, but just based on the fact that they’ve built a supply infrastructure that is unrivaled. The criticism above that Apple just makes shiny things misses the point: Apple’s success is that they make high-quality things that stand out in a marketplace of flimsy junk. And when they can put out seamless aluminum-and-glass sculptures at a lower price than the flimsy plastic of their competition, well, they deserve the massive lead they enjoy.

    Regardless of where they choose to take the world, Apple’s business model, culture, and mountain of cash are going to carry them forward for quite a few more years (certainly, we’re still on the upswing of that ride), and they’ll remake the world in their image, whether we end up liking it or not.

    I think 2011 is the wrong inflection point to be thinking about though. I think 2007 is, in retrospect, the clear dividing line. The iPhone really did change everything in the mobile phone market, and it led to the iPad, which is shaping the post-PC computing market.

  2. I think Google’s real impact over the last 10 years has been financial. Making a profit with online advertising was completely discredited after the dot-com bubble burst. Google restored investor confidence in that business model, resulting in billions in new investment.

  3. I came here to say what Joe K said: Search put Google on the map, but of possibly bigger importance is that they developed an online advertising model that works. It’s the mountain of cash they’ve earned from advertising that has allowed them to undertake all the rest of their innovations.

    It’s easy to see and comment on the end-user stuff: pocket computers, search, etc. If you’re looking at historical value, I wager that in 30 years, people will pay more attention to Google’s success with advertising (and the resulting economic ramifications that Joe K mentions) than anything else Google has done to date.

  4. Both Apple and Google (in the iPhone and search) prioritized ease of use for the masses. More here: http://uncorked.org/medley/2011/08/changing-the-world-requires-ease-of-use/

  5. Apple, hands down. iPad, iPhone, iPod, iTunes Store. The revolution started on October 2001.

  6. I’d vote Google, but I think they had a synergistic effect. Google is clearly valuable without Apple, but I think Apple’s value is greatly reduced without Google. How revolutionary would an iPhone or iPad be if you only had the pre-Google web? It would just be a phone (a revolutionary phone, but a phone). The iPod was important, but more along the lines of a Sony Walkman than a truly society-changing technology.

    Combine the advancements on the web spurred on by Google with Apple’s devices allowing people to integrating it fully into their lives and it does seem like we are living in the future.

    Of course, that is discounting the innovations on the wireless data side. If you didn’t have 3G, how much less compelling would the iPhone be? Without that, would we have an iPad?

  7. I think the idea that the iPhone would not be useful without Google is a little strong. Google’s search engine is great, of course, but we had decent search engines prior to that, and search engine technology would have improved over the past 10 years with or without Google. The same could be said for phones as well, of course. Google and Apple both moved the ball forward more quickly and decisively than the competition, but it’s not as though either invented something entirely new.

  8. I would say it isn’t just the search engine but things like maps & docs, as well as an adherence to web standards that allowed those tools to actually run on a mobile device. Surely if the “mobile web” was an important contribution by Apple, web-standards-based services were an important and complimentary contribution by Google. Google switching to H.264 video for the iPhone was a big, expensive favor that helped the iPhone catch on as well. People still have an ‘ah ha’ moment when I jam the iPhone in a dock and youtube starts playing on my television.

  9. I think that Apple turned rescued computers and phones from the race to the bottom typified by most of the PC manufacturers, but Google commoditized them. In Google’s world, everything is a click away no matter what device you use. In Apple’s world, everything is a click away so long as you’re in Apple’s world.

    They’ve certainly helped each other a lot by making Windows more irrelevant, but Facebook and others played a big part in that too. Apple seems to be going for the full vertical market – content delivery across everything to their own devices for a seamless experience.

    Apple will probably capture and keep the luxury market for everything, including TV. Google’s gunning for everyone else. If there’s space of Mercedes Benz and Toyota, there’s space for Apple and Google, and I think Google get the Post-PC world in a way Apple still haven’t quite grasped. In a proper post-PC world, the device doesn’t matter, content will come to you. Neither of them are quite there yet.

  10. If I remember correctly, YouTube was something like 6 weeks away from running out of cash when Google bought them. Everyone was relieved because the worry for months had been that YouTube might have to shut down.

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