The asymmetric competition between Google and Apple app stores

In the latest version of Android, Google shifted from bitmaps to vector rendering for maps.  The shift is probably more a function of available processing power on the device than a strategic shift to position value on the device rather than in the cloud. Vector maps, which are much more efficient in terms of bandwidth and local storage, have been the choice for in-car navigators but Google has always been using bitmap tiles which are fetched from a server and delivered only if the device is using a data connection. The downside for vectors is that they require a bit more local processing power.

I doubt that Google’s move to vectors is part of a shift to more app-centered/edge-of-network strategy.

How is this relevant?

Google has been riding a wave of re-centralization of value toward the center of the network as broadband made the cloud feasible. Keep in mind that Microsoft rode a wave of de-centralization as value moved to the PC and away from the mainframe. As intelligence was pushed to the edge, Microsoft accrued value from enabling the edge as a locus of productivity. This is no small thing.

Then came apps.

The supernova that is the App Store illuminated the possibility that apps are perhaps a “pushback” on the center. Like all good disruptions this was unforeseen: Apple built the store and the apps sold; by the billions. Apple joined the world in a scramble to react. Something profound was happening, but the very brightness of this explosive growth blinds us to what is actually going on.

My hypothesis is that there is a tug-of-war going on between the mobile cloud and the device-at-the-edge. Both will become better and neither is good enough. Technology roadmaps point to both higher availability of local storage/processing power as well as faster, cheaper and more ubiquitous mobile broadband. So technology insight by itself is not enough to give us a clue to the outcome.

What I would focus on is what is more natural for the user.  Note that Twitter and Facebook both have better interfaces with their apps than they do with their browser interfaces. That and innovations in game interaction points out that apps are as much a disruption of UI metaphors as they are of the locus of power in the network. It would not surprise me if people end up spending a larger part of their lives tethered to device-enabled social media, “firing” the PC from the job of social interaction.

If we believe the app will grow as the preferred interface for the web (and I’m leaning in that direction) then the implications are potentially harmful to Google. Google does not “do” interfaces. Their strategic assumption has been that interfaces are commodities. The browser is the universal interface. Perhaps HTML5 will offer sustenance to the concept, but it’s not a panacea. Web apps have a long way to go to become competitive with hand-crafted app UIs. (While web apps have been possible for iPhone since its inception, developers vote en-masse for apps and almost zero popular web apps exist. Ditto for Flash-to-app interface ports.)

This brings us to focus on the asymmetry of business models.

the App Internet

What we end up with is the “app internet”: a potential disruption of the browser-as-interface and the re-integration of the user experience around the device. Because the iTunes store allows money to be attached to new interface innovations, developers follow and compete on better interfaces rather than on access to the back end.  The asymmetry ensues from the fact that by attaching profit to the point where the user touches the screen, Apple took the basis of competition for developers away from the cloud.

In other words, the point where the electrical charge of the human skin is detected is suddenly the exact location of value capture from mobile computing.

Of course, Google is responding, but since they did not focus on seamless and curated experiences, developers are not seeing returns for investment in interfaces at the touch point. As a consequence, Google apps developers seek ad revenues. In turn, this is a road that leads to less innovation in interfaces and more innovation in network-dependent services.

I sense a distinct asymmetry in app trajectories between the platforms due to core business model choices. Asymmetric competition causes the great fortunes to be made and great fortunes to be lost.