Open...and Shut If ever there were a company made to beat Apple in mobile, it's Google.
Apple, with its rigid devotion to a native app experience, is the perfect target for Google, king of the web. After all, the web and its rising standard, HTML5, threaten to cut Apple's estimated operating profit growth by 30 per cent over the next four years, according to Sanford Bernstein analyst Toni Sacconaghi, as app developers write browser-based apps that span devices.
The problem, however, is that Google is showing itself to be a poor standard-bearer for HTML5, given its Janus-faced mobile strategy that Android largely dictates.
Google should be the industry's standard bearer for HTML5, given its web DNA and the opportunity to unseat Apple using the disruptive web. But HTML5 isn't going to topple Apple anytime soon, if for no other reason than no Apple competitor supports HTML5 on its devices as well as Apple does. By a considerable margin.
Part of the reason HTML5 apps perform much better on Apple devices is because Apple long ago invested in hardware acceleration, whereas Google only got around to it in version 3.0 of Android.
And then there's just general browser performance. On the desktop, Google Chrome, Mozilla Firefox, or even Microsoft Internet Explorer regularly trounce Apple's Safari in performance tests, as well as extensibility of the browser through plug-ins and extensions. But in mobile, Apple's Safari blows everyone else away, as recent research shows.
In other words, even the web is better on Apple devices, despite Apple's preference for native apps. Google should be doing better. Perhaps the reason it isn't comes down to a confused mobile strategy.
On the desktop, its strategy is clear: all web, all the time. Google has invested in Google Docs, Picasa, Gmail, YouTube, and a wide array of other services that live on the web. In mobile, however, Google's approach is much less clear, an opacity likely spawned by Android's surprising success. Yes, Google has rolled out several new apps (Google+, Music Beta, etc.) that live in the browser, and have no native app equivalent.
But Google also has a stringent devotion to Android, which has often been slow to adopt technology that embraces HTML5 (see hardware acceleration commentary above), and which depends for its success on the same model that Apple does: a native app store. Except that Apple doesn't really rely on the App Store for its revenue. Not directly, anyway.
Despite the significant success of Apple's App Store, the revenue it brings in is a rounding error on Apple's income statement. Piper Jaffray analyst Gene Munster has estimated that the App Store accounts for a mere 1 per cent of Apple's gross profit since it launched. Even if that number has gone up in the year since Munster first announced his estimate, it still would pale in comparison to the money Apple makes in its core business: hardware.
The better Apple's support for native apps, the more devices it sells. The better its support for HTML5, the more devices Apple sells, too. Either way, Apple wins. (And promises to continue to win as it has serious economies of scale compared to its hardware competitors, as John Gruber posits.) Google, meanwhile, has no such clarity in its mobile business. Google wants to play it both ways - native (Android) and HTML5 (Chrome) - but HTML5 is too often the ugly stepchild in a company that should be trumpeting web standards in every single thing it does.
I'm not suggesting this from some big policy moves that Google has announced, but rather as an employee of a company that works with Apple, Google, and others on HTML5. There are pockets within Google that absolutely love HTML5, but it is the Android team that gets the most airtime. Advertising should be to Google as hardware is to Apple, but in my experience Android obstructs Google's interest in working with the web, rather than accelerating it.
Contrast this with Twitter, Facebook, Microsoft, and others who have clear strategies around HTML5 and, hence, are able to promote it without being contradicted by their own successes in native.
Perhaps it doesn't matter. Android is, after all, flying high in smartphones, even if it has yet to catch fire in tablets. Perhaps Google doesn't really need to embrace the web to win in mobile. I can't see Google beating Apple at its own native app game and, given Google's web DNA, I can't see its employees wanting to. Google needs to get its mobile story straight, and that story is going to sound a lot more consistent coming from Google's lips if it's consistently HTML5.
Matt Asay is senior vice president of business development at Strobe, a startup that offers an open source framework for building mobile apps. He was formerly chief operating officer of Ubuntu commercial operation Canonical. With more than a decade spent in open source, Asay served as Alfresco's general manager for the Americas and vice president of business development, and he helped put Novell on its open source track. Asay is an emeritus board member of the Open Source Initiative (OSI). His column, Open...and Shut, appears twice a week on The Register.