Apple’s in a strange position vis-a-vis many of its biggest rivals. While the company has in the past counted many of the most prominent tech companies in the world—IBM, Microsoft, Intel—as rivals, in more recent years, it’s been strategically savvy about turning those erstwhile competitors into allies.
Which isn’t to say that the company doesn’t still have powerful foes. But the nature of the technology industry today is that none of these companies exist in a vacuum; there are so few at the highest of levels that ultimately all of them exist in a liminal state between ally and enemy. And for Apple, no company is more prominent in that frenemy zone than Google.
But with the latest updates to its software platforms unveiled at last month’s WWDC, Apple has once again taken plenty of shots at Google, rolling out features that compete directly with Mountain View’s own offerings, all while deftly steering around the places the companies continue to work together.
Found in translation
Perhaps one of the biggest surprises in the new initiatives undertaken by Apple this year is the focus on translation. It’s something that the company has only dabbled in previously, offering the ability for Siri to do some rudimentary lookup of words from other languages.
But in this year’s platform updates, translation is front and center. Not only does it have its own app—for which Apple emphasizes the private, on-device nature of translation—but it’s also built right into Safari, allowing surfers to instantaneously translate a webpage.
Google Translate has been the de facto translation standard on the web for years, and the company has continuously expanded it to include most of the world’s languages, as well as going beyond just typed translations to spoken, handwritten, and even images as well.
By comparison, Apple’s current translation feature is meager. It only supports a handful of languages at present, rather than the more than 100 offered by Google Translate. But Apple—again taking a page from Google’s playbook—has billed the translation feature as a “beta” so far, reinforcing the idea that the company has only just started down this path. It seems unlikely that Apple will be able to challenge the stranglehold Google has on web translation, but if it continues to improve its on-device feature, it may be able to seize the default position for users of its own platforms.
On the map
In 2012, Apple made one of the biggest changes to its young mobile platform when it opted to discontinue its relationship with Google for the iPhone’s built-in mapping app, and instead rolled out its own replacement.
Even now, almost eight years later, the company still hasn’t totally erased the backlash it got for what, at the time, was certainly a sub-par solution compared to Google’s own offering. But over that time, Apple has spent a lot of energy in improving its mapping product, rebuilding the data from the ground up, adding new features like indoor mapping and Look Around, and this year integrating a long-missing capability: cycling directions.
It’s emblematic of the strategy that a huge, profitable company like Apple can afford to take: slowly and steadily building an entire system from scratch and gradually improving it over the course of years. Rolling out a Maps service that would have competed directly with Google eight years ago would have been basically impossible, given the disadvantage at which Apple started. But the long term strategy has allowed Apple to erode Google’s usage on its own platform, just as the company is likely to do in translation.
The axis of competition between Apple and Google isn’t always a straight line. Sometimes Apple builds competing products, as in the case of translation and maps, but other times its approach is diametrically opposed, bringing the differences between the two into stark relief.
Such is the case with Apple’s stance on privacy and, specifically, its recent addition of the Privacy Report feature in Safari on iOS 14, iPadOS 14, and macOS Big Sur. While Cupertino has long boasted about its commitment to privacy via innovations like blocking cross-site tracking, it’s put that front and center in the latest platforms by actually showing users all the trackers that it blocks on various webpages.
That’s significant because many of the most prominent trackers you’ll find across the web are Google’s. (It’s hardly scientific, but if I look at my own Privacy Report on the iOS 14 beta, it tells me the top five most contacted trackers are all Google’s.)
Advertising remains the core of Google’s business model, and this is yet another shot directly across the company’s bow. And while it might not be enough to sink Mountain View, it will likely only hasten the slow decline of web-based advertising, especially if other browsers follow suit.
If nothing else, it will help keep Google on its toes, and a Google that’s busy worrying about its bottom line may be more vulnerable in other arenas in which it’s likely to go head-to-head with Apple.
Dan has been writing about all things Apple since 2006, when he first started contributing to the MacUser blog. He's a prolific podcaster and the author of the Galactic Cold War series, including his latest, The Nova Incident, coming in July 2022.