If Not for Android, Where Would Google Be?

John Gruber responded to yesterday’s piece about an alternate reality where Android didn’t exist and Apple gained 70% market share with piece called If Not for Android, Where Would the iPhone Be?:

But with today’s piece, we have a first: one where I disagree with Thompson’s conclusions.

I don’t think the iPhone’s market share or sales numbers would be all that different in a world without Android; other mobile OSes simply would have picked up the slack. Windows Phone, for one. WebOS/Palm for another. The key is that the carriers have never liked the iPhone because of the control Apple has over every aspect of it…

Second, even in the scenario Thompson outlines, in which the iPhone wields a majority market share in smartphones in a no-Android world, I would be quite surprised if Apple abused that position to do something like reject Google Now from the App Store.

Both points are valid, particularly the first one: I’ve written previously about the extreme discomfort the iPhone causes carriers in subsidized countries, as well as the fact the iPhone is simply too expensive for most non-susbsidized ones. Something, anything, would have filled the 70% of the market that Android now holds.1

But it’s Gruber’s second point that is, to my mind, besides the point. The reason Android exists, and the basis upon which we should judge it a success or failure, has nothing to do with what Apple would do in an alternate reality; it has everything to do with what Google thought was best for their business.

Remember, Google bought Android in 2005 before Eric Schmidt joined Apple’s board.2 Google had designs on the phone market long before they knew what, if anything, Apple was up to. They were primarily concerned with Microsoft, which most analysts presumed would come to dominate the phone market, just as they had PCs. And for Google, that was unacceptable. Apple may have been happy to have Google power Siri; would Microsoft let Google power TellMe?

And so Google – who at that time was not yet the industry titan we think of today – launched a plan to ensure no one dominated mobile the way Microsoft dominated PCs. And, if billions of people gained the ability to go online from anywhere, well, that was money in Google’s pocket.

I’d say Google succeeded. And that’s why Android is a success.

One final note: At the very real risk of veering off into pop psychology, if Schmidt was willing to abuse his position on Apple’s board for Google’s benefit3, do you think he would have been likely to believe that Apple would happily partner with Google forever and ever? Seems doubtful, no?

I agree with Gruber: Apple would love if Google powered Siri, and iCloud for that matter. We both understand that Apple prizes focus and would have had little desire to extend themselves to an area they didn’t understand. But did Eric Schmidt understand this concept? More importantly, would it have been rational for him to in effect place the future of Google in Apple’s hands, a company legendary for its secrecy and need for control?

I think not.

  1. Two quick asides:

    • I doubt Windows Phone would have taken up much slack, particularly in subsidized countries; Microsoft has insisted on Apple-like control of the user experience without an Apple-like user base willing to switch carriers for Windows Phone devices. The result is zero leverage in the face of carrier hostility.
    • The uncomfortable truth, as I actually alluded to in a footnote yesterday, is that Android’s success has almost nothing to do with the quality, or lack thereof, of its user experience. So what matters?
      1. It offers carriers control.
      2. It’s free for OEM’s.
      3. It’s good enough.

    Today, the fact it has an app ecosystem is high up the list as well, but only as a necessity to compete; five years ago it didn’t figure in the calculations.

  2. The Schmidt-on-the-board fiasco is entirely on Jobs. It’s hard to fault Schmidt for doing right by Google. One of Jobs’ most significant mistakes 

  3. There’s little question in my mind that Google benefited greatly from Schmidt’s presence on the board. The pre and post iPhone Android devices speak for themselves. As I noted above, the mess is Jobs’ responsibility, but Schmidt should never have accepted the position