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Will Schmidt's exit change the Apple-Google battle?

Eric Schmidt

Eric Schmidt’s exit as the CEO of Google won’t affect the dynamics of the company’s battles with Apple in the smartphone and tablet wars, analysts said.

During an earnings call Thursday, Schmidt announced that he would step down in April, and that co-founder Larry Page would take over as CEO. Schmidt will remain with Google as its executive chairman, and will focus on long-range deals and partnerships, as well as building relationships with businesses and governments.

Google and Apple have been brawling in the mobile market since late 2009, when smartphones powered by Google’s Android operating system started selling in quantities, and are lined up to compete even more this year as Android-based tables begin to take on Apple’s iPad.

According to some estimates, Android-based smartphones now outsell the iPhone in the U.S., putting pressure on Apple to boost sales.

The tension between the two California companies has been intense at times, with Apple executives denigrating Android—one called tablets using the OS “bizarre” last week—and Schdmit forced off Apple’s board of directors in August during a FTC (Federal Trade Commission) inquiry into possible antitrust issues.

But Schmidt’s exodus from the CEO’s chair isn’t likely to mean much, at least in the short- and mid-term, to the tussle between Google and Apple.

“I don’t think it will change the situation at all,” said Brian Marshall, an analyst with Gleacher & Co. who tracks Apple. “The companies will continue on the paths that they’re now on for the foreseeable future. Google will throw things against the wall and sees what sticks, and Apple will continue to focus on great products.”

Ezra Gottheil of Technology Business Research agreed. “I can’t imagine what Google would do differently in respect to Android and Chrome OS just because Schmidt is no longer CEO,” Gottheil said. “Google and Apple are obviously battling for the same turf—both for the right reasons—and that won’t change.”

Gottheil covers both Google and Apple for his firm.

Ray Vales, who follows Google for Gartner, echoed this colleagues, but left the door open to change.

“The generals have changed, but the battle lines have not,” Valdes said, referring to Steve Jobs’ decision to hand control of the company to chief operating officer Tim Cook. Jobs on Monday announced he was taking an indefinite medical leave.

“The larger theater of conflict in mobile, that’s not going to change dramatically,” Valdes said. “But to the extent that different individuals, with different personalities, will be running both Apple and Google, change could happen.”

One reason: The top spot may be a place holder.

“The current leadership at each company is potentially a placeholder, potentially transitory,” said Valdes. “[Larry] Page may not be the long-term CEO of Google. He’s a familiar face, so that’s a level of comfort for investors, but he might not be the one for the long haul.”

If Jobs does step away from his CEO role at Apple, it’s unlikely that Cook won’t get the nod, Valdes acknowledged, but that doesn’t mean change couldn’t happen.

“The tech sector is very dynamic and fluid, and there can be tectonic shifts that can occur rapidly,” he said. “Change at the CEO level at Apple, for example, might mean a shift in [its] alliances.”

Valdes noted that while Apple failed to reach a deal with Facebook last September when the former launched its Ping social element in iTunes, an Apple-Facebook alliance—something that could better position both companies as they battle Google—may have a better chance if Jobs isn’t in charge.

“There may be turnarounds in that direction,” Valdes said. “Certain assumptions that we’ve made [based on who is CEO] may no longer be valid.”

[Gregg Keizer covers Microsoft, security issues, Apple, Web browsers and general technology breaking news for Computerworld.]

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