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Why Google doesn’t sweat phone apps

You’ve seen the ads: “There’s an app for that.” There does seem to be an app for just about anything when you own an iPhone, so you’d think that Google might be worried about Apple’s big lead in the important mobile marketplace. But I think they aren’t very worried. I think that things are going just as Google has hoped. Read on to find out why.

Google’s business is based on advertising, so they are unlikely to miss an opportunity as big as mobile advertising. So, when they saw the big lead that Apple has jumped out to, it had to give them pause. But not for long.
Google’s Android operating system just reached one million units sold, and did it faster than the iPhone did. And Android has already passed iPhone in the number of units sold in the U.S., although Apple still has a big lead in other geographies. And Android apps have been gaining rapidly, too.

But that’s not the real reason that Google isn’t worried about apps. The latest technological development isn’t happening in a lab or a garage. It’s happening in a boring old standards committee. The HTML5 standard sounds like just about the most uninteresting thing imaginable, because, after all, who think about HTML? But it has huge ramifications as to how the mobile world shakes out.

You’ve already heard about some of the fallout in the ongoing war between Apple and Adobe. Apple, in trying to control its platform, does not want Adobe Flash apps running that can run on the iPhone and on any other device. They want apps on the iPhone application programming interfaces (APIs) only. So, Apple has loudly backed the new video standard in HTML5 as a way of freezing out Flash. You might think that APIs are just some tech junk that no one needs to understand, but as a marketer, you are a lot about what the standard format for content needs to be. Apple wants Flash to lose to H.264, which is part of HTML5.

The names of all these things are not important. What is important is which companies will be on the winning side of these battles. Google has pointedly voiced support for both HTML5 and Flash. But that isn’t the biggest change coming with HTML5.

Apple’s approach to support HTML5 cuts both ways. HTML5 is full of new features beyond video support, not the least of which is the ability for Web browsers to run offline applications. That feature is critically important for computer applications such as e-mail and calendars, but it sets the stage for any phone application to use a browser instead of needing to use the phone’s app APIs. This could potentially loosen Apple’s grip on the iPhone, because an HTML5 browser might create an experience as good (or almost as good) as a native iPhone app.

If this happens, and I think it will, it plays right into Google’s hands. Google has an open platform in Android that will continually innovate in its support for HTML5, and Google is uninterested in lock-in on the apps. Google just wants a cut of the advertising, no matter what phone people use. For Apple, it’s tougher, because Apple is dependent on the hardware and software revenue to a much greater degree than Google. Apple also makes a lot of money on iTunes, but rivals are emerging there, too, and having HTML5 support on the iPhone gives those rivals a gateway into the IPhone market.

HTML5 is far from a death knell for Apple, but it is clearly a shift away from proprietary experiences into one that it is more open for innovation without any need for the handset maker or the carrier to approve of the capability. Where today, Apple and the carriers have a lot of say as to what works and doesn’t work on an iPhone (and by extension, on iPods and iPads), HTML5 breaks that power.

Google, who never tried exercising that kind of power over Android, can only be smiling. Certainly there are other issues in pursuing a more open strategy–Microsoft and Intel dominated PC sales but also suffer from a more fragmented market and a more difficult user experience because of the openness. Apple’s seeming rigidity in controlling hardware and software has resulted in better user experiences far sooner than would have occurred in an open market.

But Google isn’t counting on having a necessarily better experience. Google is betting on cheap, on choice, and on getting a slice of every transaction, not on selling the best hardware, software, and content experience. Who will win? They probably will both be wildly successful for a long time to come, but Google probably has fewer worries about the way the world is trending than Apple does.

For marketers, the lesson is to pay attention to the way things are evolving. If you bet all your budget on an iPhone app, it might give you a temporary edge, but paying attention to the more standard way might give you more leverage in the long run. Proprietary methods are in decline in most parts of computing, so pay attention to which marketing is on the side that is gaining traction. Often the innovations begin with proprietary technology, but then shift to something more open. As marketers, we must remember that these winds can shift quite rapidly, so we must always keep on top of the trends.

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Mike Moran

Mike Moran is a Converseon, an AI powered consumer intelligence technology and consulting firm. He is also a senior strategist for SoloSegment, a marketing automation software solutions and services firm. Mike also served as a member of the Board of Directors of SEMPO. Mike spent 30 years at IBM, rising to Distinguished Engineer, an executive-level technical position. Mike held various roles in his IBM career, including eight years at IBM’s customer-facing website,, most recently as the Manager of Web Experience, where he led 65 information architects, web designers, webmasters, programmers, and technical architects around the world. Mike's newest book is Outside-In Marketing with world-renowned author James Mathewson. He is co-author of the best-selling Search Engine Marketing, Inc. (with fellow search marketing expert Bill Hunt), now in its Third Edition. Mike is also the author of the acclaimed internet marketing book, Do It Wrong Quickly: How the Web Changes the Old Marketing Rules, named one of best business books of 2007 by the Miami Herald. Mike founded and writes for Biznology® and writes regularly for other blogs. In addition to Mike’s broad technical background, he holds an Advanced Certificate in Market Management Practice from the Royal UK Charter Institute of Marketing and is a Visiting Lecturer at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business. He also teaches at Rutgers Business School. He was a Senior Fellow at the Society for New Communications Research and is now a Senior Fellow of The Conference Board. A Certified Speaking Professional, Mike regularly makes speaking appearances. Mike’s previous appearances include keynote speaking appearances worldwide

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