Greetings from Europe, where I’ve been on a whirlwind business trip over the past two weeks. It’s been faster than I would have liked. I did get a nice weekend in Prague (one has to stay somewhere on a two-week trip). And the time I’ve spent cemented my opinion that Google is trouncing Apple in the rush to control the hyperlocal relationship with customers. Even Yelp is probably better positioned than Apple.
The reason is simple. I have an iPhone; it is wonderful hardware device. The iTunes player and store are masterful. The phone’s general user experience and interface is excellent. But almost all the apps that I like to use to interact with that phone for hyperlocal information come from Mountain View, not Cupertino.
Let’s take Prague, for example. I needed to get information on some brewery tours in this famed capital of beer. I started with Siri, Apple’s voice-recognition software that is tied to its Safari browser. Siri had trouble getting me decent results, interpreting my request for Staropramen Brewery as Star of Bethlehem jewelry. I went and tried the same query on Google’s Search application, which also has voice recognition for search. Google Search nailed it on the first try and took me to a Google Maps page that offered me turn-by-turn walking instructions. Out of curiosity I went to the Apple Maps application which has been much maligned for sending people into dangerous conditions in Australia, among other failures. After I typed in the address of my destination, Apple Maps informed it did not offer walking instructions in the Czech Republic. Thanks, guys.
This experience set the tone for my trip. I am now running primarily on my mobile device with Google Search and Google Maps. I also use the Google Chrome browser because it deploys a better user interface for multi-touch. Even had I used Apple’s Safari browser for Google Search, it would still take me back to Google Maps. All of which has led me to the obvious question — namely, what is the difference between my iPhone and a nice Samsung Galaxy? Increasingly, there is little difference from a user standpoint as Samsung’s own user experience and interface, and hardware design teams have improved with each subsequent release.
In fact, Apple’s failure in this regard resembles the past conditions when Steve Jobs and his team built beautiful hardware but struggled to match the software functionality coming out of the Windows world. Indeed, each week we hear about another piece of Apple hardware rumored to be in the works but Apple has yet to fix Siri, its maps problem, or deliver a Safari browser that pushes significantly forward. For hyperlocal, these failures are crucial and damning. The hyperlocal interface will overwhelmingly revolve around a mobile experience with advertising and commerce tied to location and in-the-moment activities or sentiments. By ceding that real estate to Google with sub-par UI/UX, Apple is handicapping its future efforts to earn a significant chunk of that market.
As for me, at this point the primary factor tying me to Apple still is my long relationship with the iTunes Store and the tight bundling of the iPhone with my Mac computer (yes, I could switch off but it would entail a bit of learning and some pain). And for local merchants, who already have a relationship with AdWords or other advertising products from Google, the reality that Google can more tightly integrate its apps and deliver better performance, ultimately matters a lot because it will likely translate into more sales and better ROI. And yes, tourists and visitors spend a lot more money on average on food and shopping per visit to a city or retail area than do locals. So the bottom line is pretty simple. In my mind, the axis of power in mobile has shifted in Google’s direction. Hyperlocal is following suit. And maybe my next phone won’t come from Cupertino.
Alex Salkever is an executive at a cloud computing company and a former technology editor of Businessweek.com. The views expressed in this column are his own and not those of his employer. His Personal Fight column appears every second Wednesday on Street Fight.