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Cheap Hardware And The Battle For Default Search

by Mike Levin SEO & Datamaster, 09/19/2012

Awesome hardware is getting cheap—I mean really cheap. I am a huge fan of the $35 Raspberry Pi general purpose computer from a UK charity organization. But then, I’m also a huge fan of the Google Nexus 7, which is one of the first examples of a highly capable graphics device built on a chip and spec put out by NVidia. But earlier this week, a story on VentureBeat about a $45 Android tablet has lodged itself in my brain. And then, there’s the $45 Aakash tablet from India that’s flying off the shelves. Bottom line: pretty awesome tablets are about to become free. You’ll have 5 or 10 of them in your life. There won’t be time to customize their environment much or move files around, so you’ll be relying on the cloud for sure.

You’ll have a couple of favorite mobile apps that you always ensure are installed (or are auto-installed by the cloud at first login), and those will give you that homey base-of-operations feeling more than the device itself or its operating system. No matter your loyalty to Apple and iOS, you will not be able to resist having these virtually free devices in your life, and you’ll have sort of a second cloud life leveraging Google—or perhaps by some long-shot, Amazon or Facebook. But chances are, it’s going to be an Android device, and all that auto-syncing stuff they do of your contacts, bookmarks, passwords and the like is going to be the killer app of these super-cheap tablets. The epic battle on our planet between Macs and PCs is wholesale replaced by that between Apple and Google.

The Mobile Apps themselves will get increasingly awesome, and indistinguishable between the Apple iOS versions and the Android versions. While HTML5 will become a very nice way to “thunk” an application down to the lowest common denominator to run anywhere, they will always be subtly inferior to the native mobile apps. Facebook taught us that lesson most recently, and as an old Amiga Computer fan, I know apps that “hit the hardware” are like 100x cooler than stupid software ports. Today’s equivalent of hitting the hardware is using all the special goodies and enhancements that are provided by the native development environment’s API, such as Apple’s XCode or Google’s Android Developer Tools for Eclipse.

So many things are going to be changing around us in terms of hardware, and the upgrade cycles are going to be so fast and furious, that all that loyalty felt for particular hardware is going to fade with each rapid upgrade. That loyalty is going to shift into a combination of the Apps and the cloud service providers. At any given moment, you could nuke literally every piece of hardware that you own, and it really won’t make much difference. Just buy some new hardware, log in for the first time, and voila! You’re back in business.

Don’t trust the cloud? It might take awhile for the Android side of the house to work out the problem (Apple already has in a combination of local backups and Time Capsule), but you’ll be able to partition your super-private App data from your cloud-backed-up App data. Your private data will forever stay local to your devices and home backup devices, while other data will be everywhere-synced all the time.

There is a battle over your “starting point” brewing. It’s the modern equivalent to your browser homepage, but its pretty different on Mobile. With Android, you can use “Widgets” on your “Desktop”, so what you experience when you merely turn on your tablet can very well work as your actual start-page—a point from which you can search. Also on Android, there is additionally TWO WAYS to unlock your device, resulting in dramatically different start-pages. If you swipe-down, it’s the interface that more-or-less rips off iPhone iOS. But if you swipe-UP, it’s Google Now, which is in itself a totally valid start page—ready to perform a search by you merely speaking the word “Google”.

So on Android (the Jellybean version in particular), a lot of thought has been given to that initial power-on experience—which is really not startup, but what happens when you unlock your device. But after long years of thinking about startup, that’s still the most natural language to use to describe this critical magical moment that is the battleground over the future. With Android under so much attack over stolen intellectual property, its wise for Google to hedge their bet with a completely different startup experience—one that is far more Google-centric and search-centric than the Apple-ish App-ish alternative startup user interface.

On Apple iOS, there is a very extreme and obvious “home” or start page on iOS, because of the one-and-only front-facing hardware Home-button. And when you hit that button, it brings you to a place where there are no Widgets or type-in fields. It’s only your first page of App icons. So ironically, if searching is one of the killer functions of your startpage, then iOSes “home” can’t be your startpage.

How do you search on iOS? Well, a phone-search is initiated from there with the fairly counter-intuitive right-swipe—or would that be left-swipe? In any case, it’s when your finger swipes right and the black screen on the left pages into view with the search-tool at the top. That search tool will search your phone first, then offer you a Web search. Alternatively, you could initiate a Web search by loading Safari and typing into the upper-right search box. Or you could run Siri by lifting the phone to your ear and starting to talk—or holding down the home button and starting to talk. Uh, wait! Apple also built its own local search engine accessible through its new map app, with 100 million entries, starting with iOS6. Every one of these options has the feel of Apple’s annoying old habit of hiding important functionality under Control + Option + Command + Shift modifier keys. I mean, SEARCH! Shouldn’t that be front-and-center?

Google has proven that that magical-moment of inquiry from your search starting point is important. It’s important to the tune of $40 billion a year of ad revenue by slipping AdWords ads in at that moment. It’s the one valid moment to slip-in ads, and that’s the source of Google’s life-blood, because 97% of its revenue comes from that one thing. Google made wise moves indeed by putting out a free phone operating system for manufacturers—BOTH in the form of Android and ChromeOS. It powerfully predisposes the default startup experience to feature search, and for the search that it features to be Google. Now make that hardware effectively free, and… well, you get the picture. It has well fortified itself as the default search provider, and the world is too busy to change the default, when it is good enough.

Apple is much more diversified in how it makes its money. Its way less vulnerable to disruption than Google, and Apple’s strategic plays have far less of a “Hail Mary” football feel to it. Apple plays down the importance of search because it doesn’t have to play it up. Its not where it makes its money. All these places you CAN initiate a Web search from iOS don’t have the feel of “default search” (except via Safari), but rather have a feel of being a move of last resort: “Nothing was found. Would you like to search the Web?” And so, Apple demotes generic Web search from “default” to mere backflow when nothing better is found on your phone, or from its data partners.

Any traffic that Apple does send to Google seems to be pure generosity on Apple’s part. They could change the default search provider if they liked. Problem being the alternative is… drumroll please… Microsoft! So what do you do if you’re Apple? Send a giant gift-wrapped chunk of change to your old enemy or your new? Could Apple make their own search engine? Well, I severely doubt they’d ever go the crawl-and-index route like Google. But the question is, do you really even need to these days? Can’t you knit together a perfectly fine search experience with something like Siri and an ever-increasing list of quality data providers? Isn’t that what they already did?

Back in the late 90’s when Google burst onto the scene, there stellar rise to success was in no small part due to the Portals of the day—AltaVista, Excite, Lycos, Go, InfoSeek, etc.—treating Web search as a checklist item and a necessary evil that they would be better off without, due to searches tendency to lead you off the Portal site. Today, Google, Apple, and to a much lesser extent, Amazon and Facebook are the new-age Portals. Microsoft lost a huge opportunity to be one of those portals by not having enough checklist items on what constitutes a new-age lifestyle provider ecosystem company. With XBox and Zune, they tried. But they missed, mis-implemented, or came too late with a few of the dots that needed connecting.

No one but Microsoft is going to build out the crawl-and-index competitive infrastructure to Google anymore. And why would they, when you can just cut deals with ready-made data providers like Yelp, Wolfram Alpha, and yes… even Amazon, eBay, Facebook, Twitter, and all the other silos of specialized data? In this scenario, Google itself is demoted to being merely one of these data providers—the backfill, if none of the premium data providers come up with a better answer first. And the huge majority of that backfill is of the seeming low-value long-tail variety that couldn’t be monetized better otherwise.

And so, there you have it: a new Clash of The Titans, with the moves and countermoves being more subtle and extending on to different battlegrounds than before. Hardware becoming incredibly cheap and rapidly replaced plays a key role that factors into Google’s advantage. This results in loyalties shifting into Apps that are becoming increasingly consistent and awesome across platforms—which you WILL be exposed to regardless of your Apple loyalty, by virtue of competitive hardware becoming effectively free. The notion of “default search” isn’t going away—however precisely what happens when you PERFORM that default search can be as radically different as not going out to the Web at all. Google is investing everything into making sure that doesn’t become the norm.