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Mobile Future: Want Apple Way Or Google Wild Ride?

Google and Apple developer conferences have unveiled the latest grand visions from these two mobile behemoths. What we've learned extends far beyond products, and speaks volumes about each company's culture of innovation.

This spring has been unrelenting for mobile innovation. Apple Worldwide Developer Conference followed Google I/O, which followed BlackBerry World, each offering a glimpse at the next several months of product direction. RIM, for example, is struggling just to show its future still matters, but for now it still manages a stronghold in the enterprise and its products are solid, if uninspired. Google's canvas is colorful and ambitious, even though the details are often abstract. Apple lacks Google's grand world vision, and while it no longer has the market cornered on mobile innovation, it is still singular in its originality and absolute in its execution. In other words, choosing a winner for mobile's best big vision of the future has become virtually impossible. But make no mistake: That is the fight both Apple and Google are now slugging hard to win.

Half the fun is watching each company's culture and fan base emerge in the reflection of these conferences.

On the surface, each conference saw thousands of attendees, but Apple's began almost as a populist rally, with lines stretching several city blocks, almost spilling into the streets. Some fans showed up the night before, like an opening for the final installment of the Harry Potter series. The Apple fervor is startling, especially in an age where these events get streamed, either by video or in live blogs, and covered live on Twitter, where, if you were watching the #WWDC hash tag during the opening keynote, it was impossible to read. The tweets scrolled through the feed too fast for the human eye. And then the outcomes are debated in an endless series of commentaries.

Much was made about Apple's two-hour opening keynote. Yet Google spread its one-hour missives over two days. RIM's CEO invited CEOs of Adobe and Microsoft to BlackBerry World, while Apple led with Jobs, who handed off to other key executives; Google's CEOs and founders stayed scarce, as if they wanted the technology and the product teams to be the stars.

Read what you will into that, but surely the output of a company is a reflection of corporate culture, and at Google, where experimentation is systemic and lionized, and failure is often just an inconvenient byproduct, power is distributed and stage time is crowdsourced. But don't mistake any of this for chaos; Google's innovation is just as choreographed, and success is hardly coincidental. It's simply a different philosophy.

Apple may have its own internal rebellions, we'd just never know it. Consider what critics have lambasted Apple for missing out on: The absence of Flash, the lack of cameras in the first iPad, turn-by-turn directions or mapping APIs in iOS 5, voice-based input, NFC support. But these aren't oversights. There's no lack of creativity or innovation at Apple; they aren't deaf toward customer desires. The "overlooked features" are instead the outcome of the careful control that Apple's perfectionist leader exercises. All of those features--save for Flash--will be there, but only when they work the Apple way. Another philosophy, and just as inspiring.

Jobs says: "It all just works." Google's Andy Rubin says: "To make our schedule to ship the tablet, we made some design tradeoffs."

Much has been made about iOS 5's promises--Apple fans loved the OS, while many others claimed that it merely caught up with Android, especially with crucial items like notifications and wireless activation and data syncing. Even Windows Phone 7 has the ability to take pictures while the phone is locked; Blackberry devices have instant messaging. iOS 5 didn't even include a widget structure, like Android has, critics griped. And so on. I won't dispute any of it. I thought one reader commenting on our live blog put it exquisitely:

For starters, not all--in fact probably not most--of the enhancements to iOS are borrowed from Android. Some are inspired by other competitors, such as Amazon (bookmarks across multiple devices, anyone?). Some are clearly Apple's own brainchildren. Finally some are things that have been on the drawing boards of many vendors (think iCloud). These reflect a converging universe in which new features cross pollinate across competitors to the benefit of all.

Every intelligent individual or organization borrows good ideas. The original iPhone, just like the original Mac, was a confluence of many ideas, some original and some not. The Palm and BlackBerry PDAs were clearly a big influence with their integrated software and hardware and for Palm, a nice library of apps on SD cards.

It's what you do with ideas that counts. Where Apple shone here was the way they brought all of these ideas together into a must-have device--elegant, rugged, and easy to use, with features that we never knew we needed and now can't live without. That's why the iPhone, particularly the iPhone 2, literally changed not only the world of mobile devices, but also personal computing.

Give Android credit for picking up on the potential of the iPhone more quickly than other competitors, for executing its own alternate OS so nimbly and for landing key partners like Motorola, HTC, and Samsung to ensure success. Google took the ball and ran with it and hasn't stopped yet.

That's great, and if you are happy Android devices users, then good for you. Turnabout is fair play, though, and you'll see many competitors borrowing Google's good ideas in the same way that every one of them will have an app store. You don't see Sergey and Larry sulking about this; they are working on the next great idea. Mr. Jobs' team is doing the same thing.

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