Who's more innovative, Apple or Google?

21:27, Jul 09 2012

Most of my family are pretty used to making ridiculous statements then halfway defending them for a few minutes, so when my brother claimed that "Apple are the most innovative company of the last decade," I simply extended the time frame to "the last 15 years" and fought for Google. I mean, who else? The question has remained with me for a few days though, and it seemed worthy of a blog.

So, who is the more "innovative" of the two? We can define "innovation" to basically mean "new ideas and ways of doing things". It's not just doing things well, it's doing things well in a new and often surprising way.

The first thing that struck me is how similar the "innovation" of each company is. Neither invents "new" products that often, they just have ideas and execute them in innovative ways. There were search engines, webmail and web browsers before Google near-perfected them, as there were mp3 players, smartphones and tablets before Apple defined them.

The differences were also quite strong, Google is mostly a web company while Apple is mostly a hardware company. They used to be buddies, back before Android, when they both saw Microsoft as the bigger threat. Google has a "throw everything at the wall, see what sticks" culture, which encourages public experimentation and has led to quite a graveyard of sunsetted products, while Apple has a much more focused approach, rarely overstepping their borders. You can look at either thing as a positive - Google is more open to experimenting with new things under the threat of public scrutiny, whereas Apple would rather its users always use the best possible product. I would give Google the "innovation" edge here, however.

Both companies are so vast that it is difficult to get a handle on their culture as a whole. Getting into Android v iOS is overdone; playing a sunsetted Google product like Wave off against the Macbook Air also seems silly, so let's look at the two's "best" product, and which was more innovative: the iPhone v Google Search.

Google search completely redefined search engines, due to drastically better results, the payoff from huge innovations in the backend, especially their custom-built server farms. They built on this backend constantly, and successfully made it profitable with valuable but unobtrusive ads that actually related to what users were searching for. The iPhone wasn't as immediately powerful. It was very popular at first, don't get me wrong, but they really took the prize when they allowed for third party apps. Innovation-wise, they made the first popular touchscreen OS and made smartphones more than just business devices - they essentially brought the internet to our collective pockets. We can argue for days about Android existing before the iPhone being announced, WebOS, and a whole handful of other things of course, but it would be impossible to deny that the iPhone was hugely innovative. Both products innovate significantly in their backend then present us with simplified and swift interfaces that anyone can use, and then make a whole lot of money.

It's hard to pick, but I am still on the side of Google in this fight, simply because I can imagine my life without a smartphone but I can't imagine it without a good search engine. Where do you stand?

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