By Harry McCracken | Friday, November 14, 2008 at 12:38 pm
The blogosphere is abuzz over John Markoff’s piece for the New York Times on a new version of Google’s iPhone app that lets you use your voice to search. (It even uses the phone’s accelerometer to let it notice that you’ve lifted the phone to your ear, and therefore switch to voice mode.) As everybody is pointing out, there’s nothing new about voice-powered search–Microsoft’s TellMe, Yahoo’s OneSearch with Voice, and Google’s own GOOG-411 all provide various takes on the idea.
Since voice search itself is no big whoop, the big question is whether Google’s iPhone app does it better than existing options. As far as I can tell, the new app isn’t up in Apple’s iTunes Store just yet–it’s supposedly going to be there any moment now–and I don’t feel like writing about it at any great length until I can tell you how it fared when I tried it.
I am, however, fascinated by one thing about it: The fact that it’s debuting on the iPhone. It’s the second interesting Google app to do so in recent weeks. (Google Earth made its mobile premiere on the iPhone back in late October.) The iPhone is a terrific platform for mobile apps, so there’d be nothing noteworthy about this except for one thing: Google has its own terrific platform for mobile apps, Android. And yet both voice search and Google Earth aren’t available for it. Rather than boosting Android, Google is giving folks more reason to buy an iPhone instead of the Android-powered T-Mobile G1.
What’s going on here? I can think of several explanations, none of which are mutually exclusive:
The iPhone was ready for ambitious apps first. Maybe these Google apps are rolling out on the iPhone simply because even Google found it easier to get going with the iPhone’s development tools. (Possible counterargument: The Android SDK was released in November of last year, while the iPhone one didn’t come along until March. But perhaps the iPhone SDK was more robust more quickly.)
Google is trying not to be evil. Maybe it just lets its employees build cool tools for whatever platform they want, without thinking too hard about their impact on the competitive front.
My guess: Google will become a major developer of Android apps, and will tend to release ones with a high wow factor on that platform first. But I doubt that it’ll abandon the iPhone, either. There will just be too many iPhone users who will use Google apps, and whom Google can make money from over the long haul.
Useful historical antecedent: Microsoft originally shipped Excel as a Mac application, back when Windows wasn’t very popular, and wasn’t very good. Once it could use Excel to pump up the Windows platform it did. But Excel for the Mac never went away. And probably won’t, as long as it’s profitable.
Then there’s the fact that Google CEO Eric Schmidt is also a member of Apple’s board. That’s a high-level abstraction of the fact that the companies both compete and collaborate today. But I’m guessing that there’s a high chance that Schmidt will eventually step down from the Apple board as competition between the two giants heats up. And I wouldn’t be stunned if the bits and pieces of Google that ship inside the iPhone–its status as the phone’s default search engine, and the use of its maps–give way to non-Google alternatives someday.
(Note: There are rumors this week that Apple is working on a search engine. They may or may not be true; if true, they may or may not have anything to do with the iPhone.)
Any other theories?