Apr 2 2014, 4:50pm CDT | by Forbes
In 2003, Neonode, a Santa Clara-based company that makes touch sensing technology, patented a process called “Gliding the object along the touch sensitive area from left to right.” The process looked and worked very similar to the “Slide to Unlock” feature on Apple’s iPhone.
When asked about it, Apple’s lawyers said that “continuously moving the finger” wasn’t specified in other prior art. In 2007, however, then Apple CEO Steve Jobs forced Google co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin to modify Android’s unlocking feature (which required the user to connect three dots to make a triangle) because it violated Apple’s patent on unlocking the iPhone with a horizontal swipe.
Patents are just one part of the smartphone wars story. Technology through the battle has carved new consumer markets and reinvented industries. They have also translated into handsome profits and user traction for both companies. But, that’s the business side of this story. There is also the other, more personal story of innovation, passion, and intrigue. Fred Vogelstein’s book – Dogfight – does a fine job of uniting these two stories into a single, cohesive narrative.
Deciding The Perfect Altitude
During a conversation with me, Vogelstein, who is a contributing editor at Wired, told me that he considered several decision trees to decide the framework for this story. The first one was about the story he wanted to tell. From the business perspective, the mobile ecosystem has expanded to include players from disparate industries such as gaming, media, and social networks such as Facebook and Twitter. The platform, itself, is a combination of hardware and software. The story, then, is as much about getting the product to market as about producing innovative ideas on paper.
For his purpose, Vogelstein decided to focus on Apple and Google and their fight to control the mobile ecosystem. Samsung, a company that has been the subject of multiple lawsuits from Apple in its proxy fight against Google, does not merit much attention in Vogelstein’s book. “Samsung wouldn’t be where it is (today) without Apple and Google (and their work on the mobile ecosystems),” says Vogelstein.
The second decision tree was aiming for the perfect “altitude” for the story. According to Vogelstein, the tradeoffs were between being too close to the ground (and, consequently, out of date) or being too distant (which would have exposed the author to accusations of not being grounded enough). Those decision trees are critical in understanding the book’s structure and narrative.
To people outside Silicon Valley, the phone wars are solely about technology and innovation. However, in Vogelstein’s narrative, the wars are about different approaches (Google’s open philosophy versus Apple’s closed systems) and explosive personalities, whether it is Apple founder Steve Jobs’ obsession with trumping Android or Google founders’ Larry Page and Sergey Brin stubborn insistence on carving out a mobile platform for their company. Vogelstein told me that he wanted to correct the skewed perspective people outside Silicon Valley have about the place. The approach works because the book is a case study about the wars as well as a narrative history.
About Innovation And Marketing
Vogelstein’s approach to telling the story is immediately evident within the first few pages. when he zooms in on the preparations for Apple’s launch event for the first iPhone. Before Steve Jobs carefully choreographed launch, everything seems a mess. The iPhone prototype has several problems: it’s processor and radio are not able to communicate reliably, media clips played on the phone keep crashing and network signals on the phone are patchy, at best. However, it is easy for readers to see these glitches in perspective considering the phone’s subsequent success.
In the next few chapters, Vogelstein does a deep dive into the history and anecdote in development of the mobile ecosystem. From Rubin’s disappointment at the iPhone’s launch to his explosive encounter with Steve Jobs (which left the first Android phone a shell of its former shelf), Vogelstein details the skirmishes that turned into a full war between Apple and Google.
He provides a balanced view of the mobile wars by highlighting differences in the evolution of both platforms. At Apple, development of the iPhone was similar to previous products: not much was known about it to people from other divisions. At Google, which has a comparatively open culture as compared to its Cupertino-based rival, the Android development team faced several problems in working with other divisions. For example, they were unable to do a native integration of Gmail, another one of the company’s products, because they could not provide much detail about their product to the Gmail team. Instead, they resorted to accessing Gmail through the web API.
The mobile wars are about much more than technology. They are also about gaining control of consumer’s hearts and minds. That can only be achieved to marketing. Google, a company run by engineers, is especially bad at this.
Vogelstein outlines reasons for Google’s initial failures in these areas. According to him, Google succeeded with its products because it converted marketing into a “giant number-crunching exercise.” The company’s marketing launch exercise for Android was obtuse: At first, they announced the launch of a consortium of carriers, phone makers, and developers called the Open Handset Alliance. This should have been a precursor to the Android platform but the world was unfazed. Incidentally, HTC, which launched the first Android phone, was paid by Google to make the first phone. In their next attempt, the company got co-founder Sergey Brin and Steve Horowitz, Android to talk about phones.
Still, these attempts were tepid in comparison to Apple.
Led by the master marketing strategist Steve Jobs, Apple had already trumped Google with a grand unveiling and demonstrating features that spoke to consumers directly. Google quickly realized its mistake and forged a partnership with Motorola. The company positioned itself as ananti-iPhone and highlighted its rough platform that was designed for nerds and techno-geeks. In recent times, the company is trying to move away from its engineering roots by acquiring companies, such as Nest.
A Narrative With Multiple Stories
In the age of an omniscient media, much is already known about the story that Vogelstein aims to tell. In a note at the end of the book, he says Apple did not make their executives available for the book while Google provided access to current employees involved in Android development. Former Android head Andy Rubin, who left Google last year, also made himself available for comment.
The difference shows in the book. On numerous occasions, Vogelstein references interviews and anecdotes regarding iPhone development that have already been public knowledge for some time. For example, the disagreements between Scott Forstall and Jony Ive have already been written about. Similarly, Vogelstein quotes extensively from Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs.
As someone who avidly follows technology news, I was taken aback by the repetitions. For Vogelstein, however, these incidents became part of a larger narrative. “You need to figure out where it makes sense to use stuff already out there,” he told me and added that Isaacson got the interview that, probably, all technology journalists wanted. Indeed, the real value of Vogelstein’s reporting lies in stringing the disparate pieces of the story together.
While discussing the revolution made possible through the mobile ecosystem, Vogelstein focuses on the media industry. That, of course, is the big industry. It would have been interesting to know more about the other, industries and business models that have been disrupted through the battle.
In the process of transforming the mobile industry, both Apple and Google have also changed.
In its approach to Android development and marketing, Google became more like Apple. The Android development worked secretly and was sequestered away in separate partitions. Their marketing strategy, as I mentioned earlier, was much more refined as compared to other Google products. And, Google began exerting more control on user experience. “They thought that whatever control they needed to exert could be done through Google services,” says Vogelstein. “But, those services become less and less important and Google has been forced to become more controlling of its ecosystem.”
Apple, on the other hand, retains its soup-to-nuts strategy but has been forced to coexist and evolve with fierce competitors, such as Samsung. As subsequent revisions on the iPhone and iPad have shown, it no longer holds the monopoly on innovation in Silicon Valley.
And, these changes are, probably, the biggest lessons from the Dogfight.
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