Google vs. Apple: Battle of the Copycats

So there you have it. Google will release its own tablet to steal a piece of the iPad pie. Lately, it seems, Google puts quite a bit of effort into annoying Apple. Conceivably, Google has already become the new Microsoft by trying to be everything to everyone and this upcoming tablet may just be another example of how Google is much more a content provider than a hardware company. But there is also a real chance that Google can succeed and beat Apple’s iPad—the iPad isn’t as new and magical as Apple claims it is and it has weaknesses. Google has all the necessary pieces in place. So what if Google gets it right?

The tablet PC business is probably one of the most attractive unlocked secrets in the IT industry. It isn’t as innovative and groundbreaking as Apple says it is. There is a history of innovation and failure. Think about the Webpads of the early 2000s, some of which were actually quite good for their time, and I would even point to Alan Kay’s vision of the Dynabook in 1972, which really should be considered as the origin of the Webpad. It is also interesting to note that the first Dynabook model and the design of the first tablet PCs were developed by the same guy, Chuck Thacker. What we are seeing today are more and more companies taking stabs at the tablet opportunity. They are simply improving previous concepts that haven’t worked well in the past.  

As much as Steve Jobs touts the iPad as the most important product he has ever created, it is just another typical Apple product that refines, admittedly in an impressive way, what we have had before. However, in the case of the iPad, there is an enormous range of weaknesses in the concept of the product that may limit the growth potential and excitement for the device. And no, I don’t necessarily point to the lack of Flash support or the missing Webcam. If Alan Kay’s software vision is as accurate as his hardware vision already has been, then Apple’s walled garden and, excuse my frank words, promotion of user laziness by pushing the App Store, may be Google’s biggest opportunity to take down the iPad. Ultimately, the Google tablet may have to be a much better Dynabook copycat than the iPad is.

Open vs. Locked Down   

Obviously, the ability to download virtually any application you could ever think of from a directly connected App Store is a huge convenience factor for the iPad. It caters to the expectation that a computing device should just work, no questions asked. We have learned that computers are a relatively cheap commodity and we don’t put that much effort anymore into making them do things that are special to us as individuals. And even if you wanted to create that special script or application, your choices are limited with the iPad. It isn’t particularly easy for a general user to come up with a customized application, and even if you figure out how to do it, Apple tells you what you can and cannot do.

What if Apple’s greatest growth opportunity today, the App Store, could become a major annoyance and the foundation of a rather fragile product in the future? An opportunity that can be attacked and taken down by a powerful competitor as soon as users needs change.

Google’s strategy can only be an open platform that is exactly the opposite of Apple’s approach to highlight the weaknesses of the iPad. And if you think about it, Google has all the right pieces in place. Think cloud computing. Think Google Docs, for example. Google can offer plenty of music and video content and I don’t think that Google would have a problem striking a book deal with Amazon or Barnes & Noble that would blow Apple’s iBook store out of the water. And then there is Flash, which I personally doubt will just die simply because Apple says so. There’s a wealth of flash content out there, especially in the entertainment segment, which would be a major advantage for the Google tablet.

You only would lock that content out of your products if it is poison to your business strategy. Flash goes against the concept and monetization strategy of the App Store, but it works very well for Google.

However, Flash may not be enough for Google. I would agree with Kay that a mainstream computing device should be easily programmable to adapt to certain scenarios when you want it to. Imagine a visual programming language that would enable you to create simple applications to perform very specialized tasks. These tasks could be used around your house in a scenario of smart appliances. Imagine a modern version of Apple’s abandoned Hypercard programming environment or even Squeak. The true potential of the tablet may lie in its mobility and flexibility and this flexibility can only be achieved through an open interface. Google should take a serious look at making its tablet programmable, while keeping the convenience of the Android Marketplace available at all times.

Entertainment Device vs. Social Communication

Another key differentiator between the iPad and a Google tablet could be social networking. We can’t really ignore this trend and it is somewhat surprising how Apple misses the mark on this one. Microsoft’s Kin phones are a first indication of how portable devices can be much more portable and can cater to the information needs of teenagers and young adults. Imagine an always-connected device that integrates all types of communication, including VoIP telephony over Facebook messaging, tweeting, chatting, and even telepresence. Imagine 3D audio services such as Mingleverse on a tablet and you could see an entirely new way of immersive communication that only a connected tablet could enable.

Apple completely ignores opportunities in social networking and advanced communication and this trend may be another huge opportunity for Google to design and launch something much better than the iPad.

That said, the Google tablet, of course, needs to be a great entertainment device with substantial hardware horsepower as well. Getting content to the tablet may require some investment, but there is a true opportunity for Google to challenge the iPad on the hardware side. Intel isn’t really happy that Apple has ignored the Atom processor for the iPad, and if my sources are correct, then Intel is accelerating its efforts to turn Atom and especially its graphics features into a much more capable product in the near future. Intel is under pressure and we have seen in the past that Intel creates its most impressive products when challenged to the core. There is an unusually attractive opportunity for Google to collaborate with Intel to equip the Google tablet with hardware that may be superior to Apple’s A4 chip. And Intel isn’t the only company that would wait in line to work with Google.          

The Open Road to Success

The iPad isn’t perfect. The Google tablet won’t be perfect. But Google needs to be different and it does not hurt to look into the past of personal computing to see what has worked in the past and what has not. Convenience is what most users are attracted to, but choice is Google’s biggest opportunity to show users how limited the iPad really is. Google has a true chance to inject excitement into computing again. Let’s hope the Google tablet will be a great copycat of the tablet vision and not just a copycat of the iPad.


Wolfgang Gruener is a technology journalist and analyst. He was managing editor for the Tom’s Hardware news section from 2003 to 2005, before launching and acquiring TG Daily. Today, Wolfgang works with startups and publishes his thoughts and analysis on critical and emerging technologies and products at

  • Tomtompiper
    Somebody just make a blank one and let us have it for a fair price, we will do the rest.

  • pcworm
    android good..
    a .NET based OS better, if going any way near Microsoft.., a win 7.. UI specialized for the tablet, simplified and stripped to the bone..but capable of running virtually all win apps..
    just my 2 cents
  • silentq
    i think Google poses a formidable threat to Apple. let's just wait and see if Google releases a device that trully will be the definition of tablet.
  • lopata
    google has much perspective..and so many awesome products for free..
    the tablet could be a major success
  • Key is interfacing / interaction with other devices. The key part ipad lacks. For example lets take the situation at a friends work place. They want to use a tablet to sign in people to their data center, they have a custom application which handles their authorization into the center. Currently its running on a tablet laptop. Allows for digital signatures, etc.
    They would love to throw this onto a ipad but can't, being 5 floors below the ground, and no wi-fi allowed in the data center. And cell phone blocking technology in place. (mainly so people can't send infromation about the center out of the place unless they memorize it, which is usually difficult to do. The ipad ends up being pointless, no connectivity means no way to validate, also they tried a similar sign in upstairs but their app was denied by apple, they have a webpage but their programmers use flash, so they have to rewrite the whole webpage, or just wait for google / hp / MS to release tablets in 6 months.

    Now yes I know they could build the app and just load it with the webkit etc, but its not clean / user friendly to boot it up that way.
  • virtualban
    Open vs. Locked Down
    that says it all, because even apple users admit at times they need some un-approved apps, since some of them got some apps that were latter withdrawn from the store, (not counting in those who jailbreak, those are disowned children now).
  • Shez
    I'm getting the same sinking feeling about tablets that I had about netbooks (for my use at least). When netbooks first hit the market I was thinking "damn, I'll just wait a few months and then grab the best one for the lowest price"... but a few months came and went and I never got a netbook because they just didn't seem... useful. Of course, having said that, I'm sure the flame-throwers will be coming out in defense of how awesome everyone's netbooks are.
    Maybe the tablet craze will be different.
  • JoeyDV
    My concern is that the quality of doing it "different than Apple" overlooks the things Apple is doing *right*. And despite all attitudes and bias, they do some things right. Unfortunately, one of those things is control. That power, abused or not, makes appliances work.

    So, consider a two-tiered platform: One an open, flexible action space with all its boons and banes, and the Other a tighter, structured space much like Apple has, or perhaps a suped-up Valve Steam if you'd like. Things that are well built and fit can graduate from the former into the latter. AM and FM, in a radio appliance paradigm.

    Just a thought.
  • mj4358
    Googles Tablet will be tied to Googles apps. I suspect it will not be anymore capable that Apple's, Or HP's. The real question is usability and overall functionality and who's gonna make that happen.
    Like it or not, Googles Os is still rough around the edges and seriously lack refinement and HP is trying to make use of windows who's interface is based on Keyboard and mouse inputs now rigged to work with touch input. Apple is the only company who has taken the time and resources to develop an OS for the sole purpose of working on touch based devices. If the other companies would just take their time and make a product from the ground up and stop being "me too" followers....Apple would not be consider the ones to beat, but just another flavor of an excellent selection of Tablet devices.
  • schmich
    "I would agree with Kay that a mainstream computing device should be easily programmable to adapt to certain scenarios when you want it to. Imagine a visual programming language that would enable you to create simple applications to perform very specialized tasks."
    What I wish my computer had is the ability to write a script through normal sentences. This could for example be used for easy but time consuming tasks such as "copy all the rows in the excel file with the word 'New' and paste them in the word document". Depending on the length of the file it can take AGES as a human being to do, the computer would do it in less than a second.

    For more complicated tasks, lets say you have tons of physical books or movies to choose from. You want to pick out the best rated one. There are applications on the mobile devices to take a pic of the cover and then give details about it. If things were open and easy, you should be able to just ask the device to just take a pic of all of them and return with the name of the highest rated one.

    The application that analyzes pictures of things shouldn't only be a stand-alone program, it should be just one open feature that can be used together with other things.