No company involved in the smartphone arena is more familiar with having its operating system relegated to the background than Google (NASDAQ: GOOG ) . The practice of shoving Android into a corner has been turned into an art form by South Korean manufacturer Samsung, which has used the Google OS as nothing more than a basic foundation for its devices at every part of the price continuum. More recently, Facebook (NASDAQ: FB ) introduced Home, a meta-app that resides between the OS and other applications to take over the entire device. Now, as Google releases expanded versions of its apps for Apple's (NASDAQ: AAPL ) iOS, the search king is taking a page from Samsung and moving to take over from within.
The Samsung playbook
Android is available free to hardware developers and, as such, has become the OS of choice for many overseas manufacturers, especially Samsung. In emerging markets where price is a much larger concern to consumers, Android devices virtually own the market; Google enjoys a roughly 70% global market share as a result. The issue for Android, however, is that Google apps aren't the preferred choice of many of the users. As a result, Samsung and others have pushed Android into a supporting role and built user interfaces that essentially lock out most Google functionality.
Following on the concept, Facebook Home takes over both the home screen and lock screen in Android to transform devices on which the meta-app is loaded into veritable "Facebook Phones." At the release of Facebook Home, CEO Mark Zuckerberg extolled the openness of Android as a critical factor in allowing his company to create the Home functionality. The migration of this phenomenon to the U.S. sets the stage for Google's latest response.
Google's third OS
While the app-created environment that's developing with iOS doesn't fully qualify as an OS to be added to the Android and Chrome family, this may be a matter of "doesn't qualify yet." A recent upgrade of Gmail allows more Google apps to communicate with each other and interact beyond the watchful eye of the locked-down iOS. For example, a link that you receive in your Gmail account will now be able to be automatically opened in Chrome -- all on your iPhone. Despite this enhanced functionality, it isn't absolute by a long shot, and it's doubtful that Apple will ever allow it to grow to full fruition.
The frenemy relationship that exists between Apple and Google jumped into the spotlight with Apple Maps debacle. After kicking Google Maps out of the built-in list of apps that came with iOS -- YouTube got its pink slip at the same time -- the importance of Google apps to iPhone users immediately became apparent. The fact that Apple Maps was riddled with bugs, some of which still persist, had a little something to do with that. Despite the fraught relationship, Apple and Google benefit from one another in important ways.
Can Google Samsung Apple?
Even as Google finds ways to allow its apps to communicate more and more effectively behind the enemy lines of iOS, it seems unlikely that Google will ever get a full stronghold in place. Just as nobody expects Apple to open up the home and lock screens to Facebook, Cupertino isn't known for playing nicely with others. Expect Google to test the limits of Apple's patience, but if Google apps get too powerful, more pink slips may be issued from Tim Cook's office.
Perhaps the most important part of the development is what it represents for the smartphone industry. As the titans continue to battle across hardware, apps, meta apps, and interconnectivity, it may be that no one system ends up ruling the day. Users may prefer an Apple piece of hardware with Google apps and Facebook running the whole show. This promises to be a big win for consumers, assuming that these companies can learn to cooperate, which is far from a foregone conclusion.
As one of the most dominant Internet companies ever, Google has made a habit of driving strong returns for its shareholders. However, like many other Web companies, it's also struggling to adapt to an increasingly mobile world. Despite gaining an enviable lead with its Android operating system, the market isn't sold. That's why it's more important than ever to understand each piece of Google's sprawling empire. In The Motley Fool's new premium research report on Google, we break down the risks and potential rewards for Google investors. Simply click here now to unlock your copy of this invaluable resource.