Switched On: With friends like Google, does Apple need Microsoft?

Each week Ross Rubin contributes Switched On, a column about technology, multimedia, and digital entertainment.

In the 1999 geek classic, "Pirates of Silicon Valley", an Apple employee watching the famous "1984" commercial with Steve Jobs points to the Big Brother character -- intended to represent IBM -- and then points to Bill Gates of Microsoft, whom Jobs has just introduced as part of Apple's family. The silent message is that the real threat to Apple is Microsoft, not IBM, and indeed the following scene depicts Jobs confronting Gates after Jobs sees Windows 1.0 running on an NEC PC.

That scene, set in 1983, could be easily recreated 25 years later, substituting the iPhone for the Macintosh, Microsoft for IBM as the iPhone's perceived threat, and Google for Microsoft as the iPhone's more serious threat. Like Microsoft in 1983, Google is a key Apple partner in 2008. The iPhone features Google Maps, GMail and Google as its default Web search engine, and Google CEO Eric Schmidt even sits on Apple's board of directors. And also like Microsoft in 1983, Google is working fervently to create a wide range of competitors to Apple's iPhone. None of these may ever match the integrated experience of Apple's iPhone, but it's clear that the first Android phone has come closer to the iPhone experience than Windows 1.0 did to the original Macintosh operating system.

Nevertheless, Google's task is a lot more daunting than Microsoft's was at the dawn of Windows for several reasons.

First, unlike Microsoft of yore, Google has no incumbent operating system like DOS that makes Android a natural successor to whatever major manufacturers handset are using now. Second, while Microsoft has always had to account for many hardware variations among PCs, smartphones vary even more in terms of their capabilities and design. And third, at least in the U.S., there is a layer of carrier distribution control that is far more restrictive than the scrutiny of many IT managers that made Windows a corporate standard. Indeed, while a goal of Android is to make phones more PC-like in terms of the freedom they afford developers, tethering and VoIP apps won't likely get far due to carrier oversight.

Overcoming these obstacles might require an army, and Google has one in the open-source development community. Taking many cues from the iPhone but introducing new tradeoffs, Android has set a clear example of an effective touch UI that -- unlike flashy shells such as HTC's TouchFLO -- carries through deep into the operating system. At launch, the T-Mobile G1 won't support Exchange connectivity or local video playback out of the box, but it will enable background tasks, keyboard-based shortcuts and, yes, copy and paste. What's more, if applications want to take advantage of video recording or Bluetooth features not supported by the base operating system, they will have the freedom to do so.

Ultimately, though, consumers care about capabilities, not plumbing. Much of the lack of oversight in the Android market can be addressed by community feedback, but Apple still has an advantage in the stability of the platform; the iPhone's almost console-like uniformity has been one reason it has won support for the important mobile applications category of games from leading publishers such as Electronic Arts and Sega.

This illustrates why, despite the visual and user interface similarities between the iPhone OS and Android, Android's real mission is to remain a foil to Windows Mobile. While Android may have the upper hand on the consumer experience now, Microsoft will of course not cede that massive market lying down. Android devices may compete with one from Apple, but Android's success will depend on how well it fares among those who peddle choice along the cellular networks more commonly traveled.

Ross Rubin is director of industry analysis for consumer technology at market research and analysis firm The NPD Group. Views expressed in Switched On are his own.