I recently interviewed a "genius" at MIT, officially so designated by the MacArthur Foundation, which grants the title and a pile of cash to a limited number of people each year.
He wanted to show me some of his latest work. Using just his fingertip, he spun his pencil-thin, elegant MacAir laptop around on his desk to show me some photos and videos. It's sleek design seemed to match the new ultra-modern MIT Media Lab building, all glass walls and airy openness, that surrounded us.
Recently a colleague here, who writes on technology, said that his No. 1 tech "want" was a MacBook Air, a sweet combination of flash and substance. And friends still like to show off their iPhones (the light sabre is a must-show-off download). One colleague just got her first iPhone – and likes it so much she signed up her mother for one too.
Apple is ... well, the Apple of our eyes. It's delicious. We're beguiled by the beauty, simplicity, and ease of use of its products, how they all work seamlessly, from MacBooks to iPhones, iPods, and iPads. One lives comfortably, and elegantly, in an Apple world.
The company has been amply rewarded for pleasing its customers. It ranks as the most respected company in the world, according to a recent Barron's magazine survey. It's now the second-largest US company, behind only Exxon Mobil.
But now a little shade is creeping into that sunny Apple outlook. It's not just the ongoing speculation about CEO Steve Jobs, now taking a medical leave, and whether he'll continue to guide the company – though that's certainly part of it. Do a Google search for "Apple and evil" and you get more than 56 million hits. Yes, Google, whose mission statement is "don't be evil" – has 99 million hits for "Google and evil," but Apple appears to be catching up. (Microsoft, seen by some as the epitome of an evil tech empire in the 1990s, rates only 37 million hits for "Microsoft and evil." It's in danger of becoming so irrelevant that it doesn't even stir outrage anymore.)
Apple recently announced a program to act as a sales agent for onlline publishers, allowing them to offer their wares through Apple's iTunes store, with Apple taking a 30 percent cut. The move didn't win much love from publishers. Google quickly responded with a plan to sell online content on behalf of publishers and grab only 10 percent off the top. Score one for Google.
Apple, whose roots are in great hardware, and Google, the ultimate software success story, seem headed toward a showdown over mobile smart phones, the hottest arena in consumer tech.
But even more may be at stake. This battle features two opposing philosophies: "closed" vs. "open." Apple offers a "walled garden" of exclusive products – lovely, safe, and convenient, but ultimately limited and upscale in price. Google represents the "open" world of tech development. It offers its Android mobile phone operating system free to any company that wants to use it to develop a phone. A slew of companies have, making Android the fastest-growing segment of the market and threatening to make the iPhone into a niche, boutique product someday.
Google profits from its giveaways because it simply wants to stimulate more online activity. It's basically an advertising company – the more people who go online looking for something, the better it is for Google and its advertisers.
Google should win this race, shouldn't it? "Crowd sourcing" – inviting everyone in to improve or add onto a product – beats the individual entrepreneur every time, doesn't it? Isn't that the message of the Internet?
Mr. Apple says no. "Open systems don't always win," Jobs said last October. He termed Android "a mess." Unlike Apple's "integrated" product line Android is "fragmented" and less user friendly. "We are committed to the integrated approach," Jobs said. "We are confident it will triumph over Google’s fragmented approach.”
Meanwhile, Apple keeps rolling out new products. A fresh MacBook Pro laptop is expected to be announced Thursday (Jobs's birthday). An upgraded iPhone and reworked iPad tablet are on the way in coming months.
Who's right? Apple or Google. Is this a contest between "closed" and "open" or between "integrated" and "fragmented?"
Consumers and their dollars ultimately will answer the question.