The interwebs have been (and please pardon our pun here) a-buzz over Google‘s Android smartphone operating system today. First, Nielsen announced that nearly one third of people buying a smartphone are now buying Android phones, making Google’s phone OS the market leader. Hot on the heels of this news, Google CEO Eric Schmidt said that despite the fact that they give it away for free, Google is making money off of Android already thanks to advertising revenue, and is more than covering its development cost. In light of all this news of Google/Android domination, we were surprised to hear that today was also the day that Google Goggles was coming to the iPhone. Like our friends at Engadget, our immediate question was why?
Google Goggles is one of the coolest unique features Android had to offer. The augmented-reality app lets you use your phone’s camera to snap a picture of something and then tells you about it, whether it’s a store, a landmark, a business card on a bar code. It’s not perfect (yet), but it was certainly has the potential to be one of the defining apps of the emerging smartphone ecosystem. Why then would Google just cede this incredible advantage to their biggest competitor in the smartphone market?
The answer lies in the very different natures of Apple and Google. Apple is a hardware company. Their main goal, when all is said and done, is to sell computers or other electronic devices. They also sell music and videos and apps via various stores, but by keeping these stores closed to non-Apple devices they’ve shown that the stores exist primarily to make Apple hardware more compelling. Sure it’s nice that the iTunes Store and the App Store make money, but their real value is what they ad to the experience of using an Apple device.
Google, on the other hand, is all about search. Making money for Google means selling ads that accompany searches, and the more people search via Google the more ads they can sell. If they can offer unique ad opportunities via novel types of searches (images, maps, etc.), then they stand to make even more money. Google gives away Android to anyone who wants it because they want as many people as possible searching through Google. A popular phone platform like Android guarantees that Google will be able to monetize all the searching done on Android.
Given Google’s motivation, it’s natural that they’d give away Google Goggles on other platforms. They make their money not off of exclusive features but by sheer search volume. By opening Goggles up to other phone platforms, they exponentially expand the number of users who can search with it and thus be served ads. Meanwhile, Google loses nothing because they don’t earn money based on Android sales, just on overall use of Google’s search and other services. As long as Google keeps up Android as a competitive phone platform they’ve got nothing to lose and much to gain by making all of its features as accessible as possible. Apple makes money on exclusivity, but Google makes money on the volume driven by ubiquity.