Apple and Google may look similar on the surface, but the companies couldn’t be any more different. That much has become clear to me after reading both the Steve Jobs biography by Walter Isaacson and Steven Levy’s In the Plex.
Google and Apple are technology behemoths that bucked the system, created game-changing products and are worth more than $550 billion collectively. Both companies have successful mobile phone divisions and web browsers, and both companies have a common enemy in Microsoft.
The two companies are built on completely different foundations, though. Sergey Brin and Larry Page firmly believe in the power of data and numbers, and that reliance on the metrics is the cornerstone of every major decision the company makes. “Information was the great leveler at Google,” Levy says in his book.
Steve Jobs, on the other hand, believed in the power of design and often threw out the data. “It’s really hard to design products by focus groups,” he famously said in a 1998 BusinessWeek interview. “A lot of times, people don’t know what they want until you show it to them.”
There is no starker contrast of the ying-yang battle of data vs. design. It’s that conflicting yet complementary relationship that sparked one of the industry’s closest friendships and, more recently, one of technology’s fiercest rivalries.
Google: Data Is King
For some reason, I decided to read both Steve Jobs and In the Plex at the same time (the former via Kindle, the latter via audiobook). It was a surreal experience, but it made it clear to me that Google and Apple are polar opposites.
Let’s start with Google. If you need proof that data is king at Google, look no further than In the Plex. The word “data” appears in Levy’s book approximately 319 times. “Design,” on the other hand, appears fewer than 60 times.
The emphasis on design comes directly from the founders, Larry Page and Sergey Brin. Here’s how Levy describes them in the beginning of the book:
“[Page and Brin] felt most comfortable in the meritocracy of academia, where brains trumped everything else. Both had an innate understanding of how the ultraconnected world that they enjoyed as computer science students was about to spread throughout society. Both shared a core belief in the primacy of data.”
The result is a company with a deliberately collegiate atmosphere, a strong meritocracy where engineers are king, and most of all a “deep respect for data.” Google is famous for making the tiniest changes to pixel locations based on the data it accrues through its tests. Google will always choose a spartan webpage that converts over a beautiful page that doesn’t have the data to back it up.
“It looks like a human was involved in choosing what went where,” Marissa Mayer once told an upset team of designers about a product design she rejected. “It looks too editorialized. Google products are machine-driven. They’re created by machines. And that is what makes us powerful. That’s what makes our products great.”
Apple: Design Is in Its DNA
Apple, on the other hand, falls on the opposite end of the spectrum. The word “design” and its variations appears in the Steve Jobs biography 432 times. The word “data” appears just 26 times in the book.
“I love it when you can bring really great design and simple capability to something that doesn’t cost much,” Jobs once told Isaacson. “It was the original vision for Apple. That’s what we tried to do with the first Mac. That’s what we did with the iPod.”
That emphasis on design derives from Jobs’s childhood experiences. Early in his life, his father taught him that it was important to craft the back of fences and cabinets properly, even though nobody would see them. Later in life, Jobs traveled through Asia and connected with the simplicity of Zen Buddhism.
Those lessons and experiences became part of his quest for perfection, a philosophy that is now essential to every product Apple ships.
Google has placed its faith in data, while Apple worships the power of design. This dichotomy made the two companies complementary. Apple would ship the phones and computers, while Google would provide Maps, Search, YouTube, and other web tools that made the devices more useful. But when Google decided to release its own mobile OS, their friendship quickly turned into a rivalry. And with Google poised to acquire a hardware company, that rivalry will only get stronger.
What can we learn from the battle between data and design? What can we learn from the relationship between Google and Apple?
Clearly no one school of thought is right: Apple and Google are both wildly successful and profitable companies that changed the world. Building a successful company (or living a happy life, for that matter) is not about embracing someone else’s philosophy, but staying true to your own beliefs about the world and learning from the mistakes you make along the way.
Second, design-focused companies tackle different types of problems than data-focused ones. A design-focused company like Apple (or Flipboard) will focus on creating revolutionary, never-before-seen products, because data isn’t great at predicting market revolutions. Data-focused companies like Google, however, have a better chance at revolutionizing existing markets because their products are simply better and more efficient. The search engine existed before Google, but the company used data to make the most effective one in the world. Apple, on the other hand, is credited with launching multiple revolutions, starting with personal computing.
Finally, while data and design are often opposing forces, they need each other as well. Jobs may have focused on design, but he didn’t ignore the data. When he saw the dropped call data from AT&T at the beginning of “Antennagate,” he rushed back from Hawaii to deal with it. The data provided the context on which he could design a response. Great design, even revolutionary ones, is built on solid data.
Steve Jobs/Android image courtesy of Flickr, Jesus Belzunce
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