Nerds of Prey

Dogfight: How Apple and Google Went to War and Started a Revolution BY Fred Vogelstein. Sarah Crichton Books. Hardcover, 272 pages. $27.

By the spring of 2008, nine months after the first iPhone reached the trembling hands of the American consumer, Steve Jobs had grown so suspicious of Google’s nascent Android project that he took an unusual step: He personally traversed the six miles from Apple’s central command in Cupertino to Google’s Mountain View headquarters to hold a meeting with the wizards of the great global search engine on their turf.

What he saw there incensed him: a smartphone prototype that offered many of the same features highlighted on the iPhone, like multifinger touch—an innovation he claimed as Apple’s proprietary invention, despite ample evidence to the contrary. Before long, Jobs started openly mocking an executive in the room for allegedly dressing and acting like him.

That meeting, recounted about halfway through Fred Vogelstein’s Dogfight, is the crowning moment in a years-long erosion of goodwill between two companies that were once so chummy that Google’s former CEO Eric Schmidt sat on Apple’s board. The erosion was also personal. Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin had long looked up to Jobs and regularly met him for walks around Palo Alto. And now he had turned on them.

Or maybe they had turned on him first. “As in any divorce,” Vogelstein writes, “Googlers and Appleites may never agree on how the two started fighting, at what point Apple began cutting ties with Google and why it is now spending hundreds of millions of dollars suing members of the Android community around the world.”

Five years into that separation, the two companies dominate the smartphone market with two widely different approaches. Apple keeps its platform locked down, carefully orchestrating each new model of the iPhone and preapproving every app. Google gives away its platform for free and exercises far less influence over the hardware, because all Android phones use Google products by default and drive that many more eyeballs to the company’s ad content. Consumer loyalties to one platform or the other now run so deep that Microsoft, a more recent entrant into the smartphone market, is now airing derisive commercials depicting violent geek disputes over one phone’s marginal advantages over the competitor’s.

Dogfight, which draws heavily from Vogelstein’s reporting for Wired, opens with the manic race to finish the iPhone in time for Jobs’s fabled unveiling of the world-changing gizmo at the January 2007 Macworld showcase, six months before it went on sale. Google had purchased Android eighteen months earlier, but its executives were still deeply ambivalent about whether to field their own horse or partner with Apple to make Google’s apps standard on the iPhone.

Like many military histories, Dogfight sees the war that ensued between the companies through the eyes of the battlefield commanders. And here any Silicon Valley raconteur faces an uphill battle. Google and Apple are remarkably ungossipy companies that leak very little information. Both typically refuse to cooperate with reporters unless the executives granting access feel that they control the terms. And the supporting cast on both sides mainly consists of fanatically loyal executives driven by sniveling rivalries and fetid testosterone—not the stuff of rich narratives. It feels like a small investigative triumph when Vogelstein is able to report that the April 2008 meeting took place in Building 43 on the Google campus, in a conference room outside Page’s office.

Hard-pressed to deliver much in the way of genuine corporate drama, Vogelstein strings together a central narrative about two companies with very different attitudes to control. He writes that Jobs “continued to believe that the only way to ensure his vision’s success was to control the entire user experience—the software, the hardware, and the content users accessed.” Jobs, who died in October 2011, parlayed that vision into profits that made Apple the biggest company on the planet, but left behind a strategy with marked liabilities. The iPhone’s disastrous attempt to replace the Google maps app with a defective Apple version is only the best-known instance of eschewing outside code in favor of in-house solutions.

Android’s openness, meanwhile, is both the foundation of its success and “its biggest potential problem,” Vogelstein notes. Google’s open-source software allows civilian troubleshooters to modify the product to the point that they can effectively create their own proprietary platform. That means, in turn, that they can alter the original business model behind the device by no longer reliably sending business Google’s way.

But Vogelstein never quite closes the loop on these themes. As usual, the villains in Dogfight are the mobile carriers and cable providers that prove stubbornly resistant to any plan requiring them to adapt and open up their own proprietary technology to innovation. The clear implication of Apple’s lackluster performance since CEO Tim Cook took the reins from Jobs is that it’s becoming a monolith in its own right, albeit one with seemingly endless reserves of imagination and marketing prowess. Google’s Android division, which also got a new boss recently, is at a similar crossroads as it ponders whether to seize more control over at least some of the devices that run its software.

Apple and Google have traded the upper hand in this war so many times that Vogelstein is reluctant to conclude Dogfight with anything more than a shrug. But the debate over the relative openness of platforms won’t stand or fall on the market’s verdict on a single product, no matter how revolutionary that product has proved to be. The great platform battle of 2008, in other words, will continue to inform every new phone and new design either company introduces for years to come. And this tends, in the larger scheme of things, to render this marquee dogfight a rather tame and market-driven affair.

Chris Wilson is the interactive-graphics editor at Time.