Maybe Google and Apple Aren't Actually Rivals in the Mobile Arena After All

Last Updated Jul 16, 2010 12:00 PM EDT

As Google (GOOG) announced its earnings yesterday, some interesting details about its mobile activities snuck out during the conference call. And the biggest little unnoticed bomb suggests a difference between users of Android and Apple (AAPL) iOS devices so significant that the two might not actually compete all that much.

At least as far as mobile is concerned, many of the earnings call remarks were predictable. In the Q&A session, as reported by GigaOM, there were also information so easily anticipated that you could have sealed your prediction in an envelope and had it read afterward, like a parlor magic trick:

  • Google gives away Android as both a strategically offensive and defensive tool.
  • There are currently 70,000 apps.
  • Hardware vendors like Motorola (MOT) and carriers like Verizon (VZ) underwrite major handset launches like that of the Droid X, so Google has no expense on that front.
  • Android's development costs are not material to the company's results (though, if you think about it, Google said the same about the hundreds of millions in revenue from China that it considered foregoing, so one person's immaterial is another's set-for-life).
What caught my attention, though, was that the most popular application by far on Android is the browser. There are two ways to take that. One is that the browser is, hands-down, the favorite because it ships on every single copy of Android. However, other applications ship with Android, and even though Apple carriers many more iOS apps, 70,000 is hardly a tiny number.

The other possible interpretation, and one that I suspect might be accurate, is that Android users gravitate toward the Web over apps, the opposite of what seems to be the inclination of iPhone and iPad users. If that is the case, then mobile has split into two camps, with each gravitating toward a different approach to meeting their needs.

Call it the Open Web versus Curated Ecosystem if you want, but in plainer words, it means that we've got two substantial mobile markets, neither of which would be caught dead using the other's choice of tool. If the two platforms lean one way or the other as well, then there may be a natural balance that will require both platforms to satisfy consumers. All the talk of whether Apple or Google wins might be nothing more than the pastime of marketers and pundits.


Yin Yang image: user hisks, site standard license. Photo editing: Erik Sherman.
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    Erik Sherman is a widely published writer and editor who also does select ghosting and corporate work. The views expressed in this column belong to Sherman and do not represent the views of CBS Interactive. Follow him on Twitter at @ErikSherman or on Facebook.