Can Google out-innovate Apple?

This may seem like an extension of some of the answers here but I contend that Google is, at its heart, still an infrastructure company and not a consumer products company.

The soul of Google lies in engineering and technical innovation that can solve amazing problems and then put it out there into the world. Search exploded because Google's (or Brin and Page's) technical wizardry solved the biggest problem the digital world was facing then - discovery.

They'd not thought of Search as a consumer product. It became an infrastructure, a necessity that was as much a part of the Internet as routers and TCP / IP protocol was. That they layered advertising on top came later. It was borne out of the question:

"Now how do we leverage this power we have over the discovery process of millions of consumers?"

Ever since, Google's approach has been to take complex problems and solve them and put it out into the world. This is a reason they attack things as building blocks. Break down the problem and keep solving it incrementally. At each stage they put out the solution into the world and adapt it further.

Gmail was no different. Maps. Again, it is an infrastructure product today. It finds its way into Uber and a million other apps. It's become a necessity for mobility.

So, to come back to the question - Google has constantly innovated (or out-innovated) Apple in areas where they are solving infrastructural issues. But, they've struggled as a consumer products company. Look at their many, many attempts at social media or messaging. Or the disaster that was Google glass.

The problem for Google is that if you aren't a consumer products company, your options are limited in how you make money. Solutions cannot always be sold - products can be. Google cannot keep finding leverage by making their solutions fundamental infrastructure because it may not work for many cases.

Today, Apple can command insane premiums on its products because it has always been a consumer products company. They don't release experimental features and small solutions. They always package the solution into clear consumer use cases and then apply design and marketing on top to build something bigger. They innovate as much on thinking about how to train and how to adapt to user behavior as solving a basic problem.

Today, we are seeing Google trying to make this transition. In the new world, they realize that they need to become a consumer products company, especially now that the hardware + software play is necessary. You cannot be an infrastructure company in hardware because it is already a low-margin, hard business but also there is zero incentive to be one.

But you can see the ethos is still strong. Sundar Pitchai still talks about Google being an AI-first company. This is fine but it is still infrastructure thinking. AI will be like electricity or Internet in the decades to come. It's what you build on top that matters. Google cannot build a large business by being known for the ‘AI' (it may work in the short term) but rather on what is their value proposition to the life of the consumer? Can they make the shift in their thinking remains to be seen.


This question is substantially deeper than it appears at first glance:

  • Could they? Yes, the resources and talent are there.
  • Can they? No; I'd say there are some organizational barriers.
  • Should they? I'm not sure if Google is the right slice of Alphabet to do it.
  • Will they? Probably not, unless they can deal with the organizational barriers first; this doesn't mean that they won't try, just that they won't really be successful at it.

Innovation is a process. It's a kind of machine, in other words.

I think that Apple has recently done some really silly moves. Many for economic reasons, when Steve's reason was always "to surprise and delight the customer".

Innovation starts with the decision to do something "insanely great", and then to ignore all the barriers between you and the goal - knock them down, go over, go around, go under them if you have to.

Apart from organizational issues, which I mentioned in another answer earlier, Google really lacks the vision to do anything truly revolutionary.

Unfortunately, they drank the ESR (Eric S. Raymond) Kool aid from The Cathedral and the Bazaar.

They have this profound bias that it's possible to do anything you can do through revolution using evolution instead.

Linux does this too. It's a form of iterative incrementalism, and it's infected many software companies who have seen the relative success of Linux, and bought into the whole interpretation put forth by ESR.

Of course, like all theories, these are just stories we tell ourselves to explain events which we've already observed, like the dichotomies between the de Broglie-Bohm theory and the Copenhagen interpretation of the math describing observed phenomena in quantum mechanics.

Only one requires a rabbit, and the other doesn't.

If you believe you can get where you're headed evolutionarily, you don't even bother to try anything revolutionary.

I do not subscribe to this view; I don't think Apple subscribes to this view.

I'll leave you with a short and pointed quote, as I think it applied to Google vs. Apple:

"Never substitute activity for action"
- Seneca the Younger, Roman Stoic Philosopher 4 AD - 65 AD
 - Letters From a Stoic

In several areas, they've already have done, and will keep doing so.

Apple invents beautiful products, by combining elegant and often revolutionary and bold hardware designs with very good and pristine software ideas. But Apple is terrible in correcting flaws, addressing unexpected needs, or taking a step back when a product just fails. They rather persist in an Emperor's New Clothes stance, than to admit their faults and just solve them.

Apple is simply terrible or at least super slow and behind in all kinds of Search, Maps, and Face, Speech, or Handwriting recognition. Google proves every time their i.e. linguistic and heuristic algorithms are superior. I don't know how they do it, but they sure get it right...

As a MacFreak and AppleFan for 30 years, I find it hard to observe and draw these conclusions, but I'm not blind.

Both companies have very different philosophies on innovation.

Google aims to push the industry forward by coming up with new novel concepts that might not be economically feasible yet. They would develop a product with a neat idea that costs like $10,000 (think Google Glass).

Apple, on the other hand, pride themselves as a consumer goods company. The best one in fact. Any innovations that come from them MUST land in their customers' hands. So, their innovations are often of relatively higher quality and lower price than Google's, but are also often late into the game.

So Google cannot "out-innovate" Apple simply because they are playing totally different games.

Any company can, but few do.

Google announces everything, ready or not. This fools the shallow thinkers into thinking they are being innovative.

Apple announces nothing until they are ready to ship. The years pre-shipping are the years where the shallow thinkers believe Apple isn't being innovative.

One company trounces the other company time and again. The shallow thinkers assume I'm talking about Google, the advertising company that still can't get past that source of income they originally started with.

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