Apple, Google, and the open vs. closed positioning war

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Over the last few months, the battle to define the meaning of the word "open" has intensified into one of the more interesting brand positioning exercises I've seen in the technology industry (if you aren't familiar with brand positioning and would like to learn more, consider starting here).

I thought I'd do a quick report from the front lines, diving in specifically to examine the battle for smartphone leadership, and looking at things from a brand positioning strategy perspective.

Google Goes on Offense

Think back to 2009 and the state of the smartphone industry. The iPhone had completely redefined the entire market, while Google was just beginning to see traction with Android and looking at a long struggle to catch up with Apple.

While most other smartphone makers were attempting to catch up playing by Apple's rules in the market Apple defined (usually a losing strategy in the long term when the leader has a solid head start), Google took a different approach—they tried what now looks to me looks like a classic repositioning strategy.

In Chapter 8 of their book, Positioning: The Battle For Your Mind, Jack Trout and Al Ries (the guys who invented the term positioning) discuss the concept of repositioning the competition. According to them, the best time to employ a repositioning strategy is when you can't find a "hole" in the position of your competition you can exploit to differentiate yourself.

Certainly in the early days of the iPhone, Apple's positioning looked pretty airtight. Beautiful, simple design. Incredibly functional and flexible product. Your computing world in your pocket, at a reasonable cost. Booyah.

So rather than join their competition in trying to "out-Apple" Apple, Google began employing a smart strategy to reposition Apple instead—as "closed" to Google's "open."

From my point of view, it has been an incredibly effective strategy for Google.

In a world where openness and transparency are themes du jour not just in business, but also in government, education, the law—you know, the stuff we talk about here on—open is so very 2010, where closed is so, well, 1984 (I couldn't resist).

Google's strategy to reposition one of the world's best-loved brands seems to be working pretty well, especially within audiences swayed by the power of "open" (and probably including many of the folks who read and write for this site, if these articles are any indication).

Your Move, Apple

I never expected Steve Jobs, a fierce competitor, to allow his company to be re-positioned this easily, though.

From my perspective, one of the worst brand positioning mistakes you can make is to play defense when someone tries to reposition you. It makes me absolutely cringe when a company being repositioned responds defensively in the new frame created by their competitor. Apple has been smart not to fall into this trap.

The best strategy to fight off a repositioning challenge is either to stick to your guns (if the repositioning attempt is a weak one) or— you're gonna love this—go on the offensive and reposition the attempt to reposition.

Still with me?

Google's "open vs. closed" repositioning of Apple was a strong move at the right time. With market share for Android growing quickly, Apple couldn't ignore it.

Over the last few months, I've watched as Apple has made a strong move of their own to reposition the open vs. closed debate.

Apple's counter-offensive is beautifully articulated in Steve Jobs' comments earlier this week on the Apple earnings call. Here is a taste from the MacWorld article about the call:

"In reality, we think open versus closed is a smokescreen to hide the real issue," Jobs continued, stating that the real debate is between "fragmented versus integrated" and which is better for the consumer. "We think Android is very, very fragmented and becoming more fragmented by the day," Jobs said. "We think this is a huge strength of our approach compared to Google's... When selling to users who want their devices to just work, we believe integrated will trump fragmented every time."

Bold move. With this statement, Jobs is changing the conversation from "closed vs. open," a conversation which clearly favors Google, to "integrated vs. fragmented," which clearly, at least in my view, favors Apple.

From my point of view, both are very strong brand positioning strategies.

Now it's your turn. Which do you think will be the winning brand position in the long term? Do you see this open vs. closed and fragmented vs. integrated battle playing out elsewhere?

I'd love to hear what you think.





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Chris Grams is the Head of Marketing at Tidelift and author of The Ad-Free Brand: Secrets to Building Successful Brands in a Digital World. Twitter LinkedIn Email: chris(at)


Google is sticking to their original guns. The latest tweet from Andy Rubin of Google shows this:

(for those that might miss it due to new tweets appearing, it goes like 'the definition of open: "mkdir android ; cd android ; repo init -u git:// ; repo sync ; make"')

It's a very geeky way to get across to Apple that they cannot out-open true open source. I think one thing that is missed in this article is the points that Jobs does indeed attempt to defend the lack of openness with each keynote and speech he delivers about his platform. This blog about the latest Rubin tweet lays it out pretty nicely:

All said, it simply makes me happy to see the likes of Linux and Git used to prove points on executive levels in public forums. To think that Open is just a grassroots only thing anymore is hardly possible with battles like this waging. It's very cool to say the least.

When Apple arrived as a company, it was as a hacker machine, letting the guts be visible, letting programmers and hardware hackers at the core of it all. They still gave that impression with the Mac, simplicity vs PC complexity (remembering the sound of the PC manuals as they hit the table). It was WYSIWYG and mousing around...creativity!

Now Apple is trapped in the middle between the still dominant world of Windows and the still-to-be-appreciated world of Free Software (aka open source). Android is the offspring of the GNU/Linux and BSDs. These are the people's tools, the creative hackers tools, the free thinkers' tools.

"Integration" gives me the same impression I had when IBM co-licensed the MS-DOS with a smug look because they had proprietary BIOS chips...and then along came Phoenix and the clones (not related to any movie by George Lucas).

Open is the future, as I see it.

would be to come up with a third-party or Google-vetted certification program for apps, just like other open source vendors have done. This would basically give an "It will work well" seal of approval to an app on a specific version of Android on a specific hardware, and users could then search the market for only certified apps, if they are looking for that.

There are definite improvements that need to be made to the Android market, but I think this one would go a long way toward addressing Apple's new attack.

It would make moot a lot of the points (valid as some are) that Apple has given. However there is a lot of thought that has to be put into that solution. Google has always set themselves up for criticism with the 'Do No Evil' slogan. So they'd have to be careful with how things are certified and the like, we already know how critical people have been of Apple and their denial of certain apps. But even so, a stamp of approval for apps would go a long way to making the system seem to be a lot more coherent.

What this says to me is that this is going to be a fun conflict to watch! Both parties are intelligent and not so egotistical to not listen to good advice.

Right now I would have to give Apple a slight edge on their repositioning, because to the masses, "not fragmented" means more than "not open" because they don't care whether it is open or not, just whether it works.

Would Android benefit from a more corporate-focus, like Blackberry's strength?

android's market share continues to rise. so i guess it depends on how you want to be perceived. Microsoft is notorious for being extremely corporate, but also fragmented (especially in the phone market). It failed them. We'll see where Windows Phone 7 or whatever goes. But so far there is definitely the right balance that you have to strike. I kinda like giving carriers and handset manufacturers a platform that is neutral and letting the proverbial best man win. But that can be seen as a weakness if you happen to buy into the worst of the phones...Apple will continue to use this as a weak point, Google will continue to argue its a strong point.

A Wall Street Journal Article had some interesting statistics:

My favorite quote from this article is:

"Microsoft's share of the world-wide smartphone market this year is expected to fall to 6.8% from 13% in 2008, while Google is forecast to jump to 16.3% from less than 1% two years ago, according to IDC."

There cannot be a better example of how open source is changing the rules of the software industry. Think about the fact that Microsoft has poured billions of dollars into building Windows CE, marketed it for the last ten years and yet, their marketshare is set to dip by 50 percent. When you compare that to Android jumping from 1% to 16%, that's pretty dramatic!

Since Android is Open Source, I'll bet that the money that Google has invested in building it is far, far lesser than what Microsoft invested in Windows CE. From a Newsweek article on Android:

"Rubin won’t say how many engineers work on Android, only that “it’s much smaller than you would think.” Some of the work is done by HTC, Motorola, and Samsung engineers, who work alongside Google engineers."

The early reviews of Windows 7 don't seem to be too great. "Too little, too late", seems to be the conclusion of the reviewers. Here is a round-up:

However, Microsoft has a great history of coming from behind and taking over markets (Windows 95 versus OS/2, Netscape versus Internet Explorer) etc. Therefore I wouldn't completely rule them out.

It actually isn't a surprise the way Android and Microsoft have gone in the past few years.

In the earlier days, Microsoft marketed Windows CE and it was fairly poplular. Unfortunately for them, they sat on it like they did Internet Explorer and Windows until competition came around.

When competitiion did show up (Firefox for IE, Linux and Apple for Windows) they've had to fire up the forges and restart their engines. Windows CE is just the last one to get their engines roaring and only time will tell if they shifted it into the right gear with Windows 7 Phone.

Android provided an alternative to the "lust-inducing" iPhone which was not [1] tied to AT&T, [2] not tied to Apple hardware and [3] competitively priced.

In both of these cases, open source provided the means for competition to arise, but being open source is not what sold these products/ideas.

From the brand and positioning perspective, I think what Apple is trying to do it very powerful. I also think that the position taken by Apple - Integrated Vs. Fragmented is a very real state of affairs. Just being open has not helped to create a very strong user experience as far as the consumer market is concerned.

I guess, with the continued success of iPhone, very soon the Android community (vendors) would be forced to provide "unified" or "integrated" user experience.

Even in the enterprises, many CIOs and senior persons have voiced the need for "integrated" approach of the open source community in the past. With as powerful person as Steve Jobs articulating this issue, I am sure even Enterprises would start echoing similar demands from open source community.

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