When Apple opened a new store on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan in 2006 it received an unusual complaint. Not the usual New York variety—you’re blocking the view I paid good money for, or you’re gentrifying the neighbourhood I just discovered. No, this new flagship store was criticised by an Islamist website. The steel-and-glass cube, the zealots complained, was meant to invoke the obsidian cube at the Kaaba in Mecca, and insult Islam. The story was ridiculous—it was one extremist website (albeit a big one), and the clever fanatics running it had only seen the cube with a black tarp over it, while it was under construction. A number of New York Muslims stood up to say that they loved the new store. But it isn’t insane to call Apple’s stores Meccas. Beautiful inside and usually outside too, they are temples to devotees of Apple’s gorgeous products. Unlike most gadget-makers, Apple sells more than sleekly designed toys. It sells a way of life and a way of being. Call it Appleism.
Appleism isn’t quite a religion, but it features an almost godlike leader, Steve Jobs. And he even came back from the dead—fired by the board in 1985, he was rehired after a slump in 1997, and revived Apple’s fortunes. Many fans view Apple with devotion: Tony Curtis, who died in October, was buried with his iPhone, like a pharaoh anxious to update his Facebook status from the afterlife.
With any faith, it is fun to focus on the fanatics, but not very illuminating. On a recent trip to the Fifth Avenue store, not many faces fitted the stereotype of Apple partisans as hip, rich, Western youth. There was a man who looked like a diplomat with the United Arab Emirates’ flag on his lapel. A gaggle of teenage boys from Brazil horsed around in Portuguese. A red-haired youngster put down his Good News Bible to play an online game called “Combat Arms”. A middle-aged couple used the Bed, Bath & Beyond website. Apple’s success has transcended the asymmetrical-jeans-and-black-framed-glasses market. It is now a movement for the masses.
Google began as a smarter way to find things on the internet; it is now a cloud of services that pervades every aspect of our lives. We google a good restaurant, google reviews of it on other websites, find it on Google Maps, google to check if the train is on time, and Gmail our friends to let them know we might be 15 minutes late.
Increasingly, we may do all of these things on a smartphone powered by Google’s Android operating system. Google makes no actual phones itself. But as it has licensed Android to more and more phonemakers, it is, for a company that makes no gadgets, the biggest competitor to the world’s most successful gadget-maker. Google has taken a big bet on making Googleism something we walk around with too.
It wasn’t always so. Only a year or two ago, Apple and Google were so comfortably different that Google’s chief executive, Eric Schmidt, was able to sit on Apple’s board (from 2006 until 2009). “Steve [Jobs] and I are very close personal friends,” Schmidt said this summer. “I believe he’s the best CEO in the world by any measure.” Their companies could have been a match made in heaven: Apple’s gorgeous devices running Google’s miraculous services. But smartphones proved too attractive for Google to leave the field to others. Android is now the bestselling smartphone system, after passing sales of the iPhone late in 2010. Jobs implied that Google had violated a tacit division of turf, pointing out at a conference in June, “we didn’t go into search” and “we’re not going into search”. Radiating self-belief as usual, he told the same audience that he would not be removing Google searchboxes from Apple’s devices, saying “right now, we have the better product”.
The two companies have taken entirely different approaches to the mobile war. Apple’s Apple-made devices allow only Apple-approved applications (apps) on the handset. By contrast, now that it has moved into the phone business, Google gives Android away—it does not sell it—to be installed on dozens of phone models made by a host of phonemakers, including Sony, Motorola, Samsung, LG, HTC and others. Android’s code is open, and the phonemakers can tinker with it to suit their needs (though Google tries to maintain a basic set of standards, so that an app built for one Android phone will work on another). And anyone who can create an Android app can get it into Google’s Android Market, the equivalent of the App Store. Apple is gorgeous but far more sealed and controlled. Eric Schmidt talked about the difference in July when he visited The Economist in London. “Google has a completely different world model,” he said. “The Apple view is coherently closed. Ours is the inverse model: the web, openness, all the choices, all the voices. And that experiment is running.”