You’d think no one had ever heard of “A Christmas Carol,” what with all the talk of Apple’s specter leaving a shadow over CES and the technology industry. Dickens’ story about character and reform is meant to teach many things, but perhaps the greatest lesson is that nothing is ever haunted by one ghost. The past, the present, and the future each have their own unique apparition, and Apple is merely the ghost of technology’s present. Google, one might argue, is the ghost of technology’s future.
Apple’s influence is undeniable. Whether it’s tablet industry and the iPad, the smartphone industry and the iPhone, or the television industry and the ever-rumored Apple television, there isn’t a product that doesn’t get compared to Apple’s offering in one way or another. Apple defined or is rumored to be entering these markets, and the company has become the yardstick for product quality in each.
But Google is starting to rise from the shadows and edge in on Apple’s territory. We’ve covered Google’s rise in mobile fairly heavily, from its “Go everywhere!” (except Windows Phone) strategy to its ability to create the “uber app” that offers the utility of many other, smaller services. The ghost of technology future is slowly but surely coming into view.
Or, as the case may be, not so slowly. Android dominates mobile market share, out-pacing Apple and practically obliterating everyone else. The operating system is popular in established and emerging markets alike, powering everything from expensive, high-end smartphones or the cost-friendly Nexus 4 and everything in between. There isn’t a category of smartphone or tablet that Android doesn’t touch. As we move towards new kinds of devices, like the increasingly popular “phablet,” this adaptability and nigh-ubiquitous presence will likely widen the gap between Android and its competitors.
Android users are also more likely to be loyal than users of other operating systems, according to Nielsen’s SVP of digital analytics, Scott Brady. For example, 39 percent of Samsung device owners are “loyal” to the brand, a 9 percent increase over last year. Apple device owners, however, have slipped from 91 percent to 79 percent in the last year, a fairly large slide for a brand known to produce especially loyal customers. And, even if customers do jump ship from Samsung to another manufacturer, the saturation of the market improves the likelihood of that switch being to another Android device maker.
Let’s put smartphones and tablets aside for a moment, though. It’s long been established that Android is the mobile kingpin, to the point that other operating systems and manufacturers, including Jolla’s Sailfish, RIM’s BlackBerry 10, and AMD with Windows, are moving to support the Android ecosystem to bolster their own. Google is also in a position to take over the television industry, and it can do so without making a television set.
Google already has a presence in the living room with Google TV. The software had a surprising number of supporters at CES, and its interface “feels” better than competing solutions. Even without Google TV, though, Google has a chance to grab the living room. Not by building the screen, but by building a new method for delivering content. Yep, we’re talking about Google Fiber.
The generally abysmal state of Internet connection speeds in the US that can only be explained by some angry prankster god (or capitalism, whichever works for you) offers Google an opportunity to undermine the Internet service providers, who also happen to control television. As “cord-nevers” and cord-cutters become more common and the Internet becomes a primary means of content distribution, Google Fiber’s faster, cheaper connection starts to become damn near irresistible.
4K, the stupendously mega ultra high-definition resolution that dominated the floors of Sony, Samsung, LG, Hisesnse, and others at CES, could make Internet-based distribution even more appealing. If videogame consoles are going to support the resolution (which is unlikely for at least a few years) or move to a wholly digital distribution model those Google-built pipes – or their equivalent – are going to shift from “kinda cool” to almost necessary for anyone who wants to use all of those glorious pixels for something other than download progress bars.
Google is also one of the main companies sponsoring public WiFi, allowing people in New York, San Francisco, and many airports in between to take advantage of a free Internet connection. As this “WiFi as advertisement” movement continues to gain speed Google will get itself and its products in front of more and more potential users.
The company isn’t only solving #firstworldconnectionproblems. It’s also offering data to emerging markets via Free Zone, which allows users in emerging markets to access Google+, Google Search (and other websites, provided they appear in the search results), and Gmail without a data plan. Whether you’re connecting to the Internet via a smartphone, tablet, and laptop or a “dumbphone,” Google wants to make it a little bit cheaper and maybe, just maybe, control the experience as well.
Again, Google is mastering the art of indirect warfare. Android doesn’t have to win in order for Google to win. Google Fiber doesn’t have to take over the US market if it convinces other ISPs to change their practices. It doesn’t matter to Google what technology you use so long as you use it to access its products and services.
Apple doesn’t have that luxury. It very much matters to the company (and its bottom line) that people buy its products. Excepting iTunes’ presence on Windows, if you aren’t buying Apple products they aren’t making any money off of you. Or, put another way: Apple wins if you open your wallet and purchase a device with an Apple logo on its back. Google wins if you get online. Which sounds like the future?
So yes, Apple may have haunted the halls of CES and could have television set makers and content providers by the gnarlies. Still, the ghost of technology’s future will come, and its headquarters may be in Mountain View, not Cupertino.