How Google Surpassed Apple in Design -- and How Apple's Coming Back

When Larry Page became Google (NASDAQ: GOOGL  ) CEO in early 2011, one of his first moves was to implement Project Kennedy, a companywide effort to redesign all of the search giant's most important products under a cohesive and unified new design language. Up until that point, the look and feel of Google's services was largely disparate and usability differed dramatically among apps.

Google focused first on its four most prominent services: Search, Maps, Gmail, and Calendar. Over the past two years, investors have seen a steady stream of beautifully designed apps for both Android and iOS, all of which share common aesthetics and interface metaphors. In some ways, Android is now more intuitive than iOS thanks to Big G embracing innovative new gestures.

Source: Behance.

In no uncertain terms, the key was a serious focus on collaboration between product groups. Google recently posted some of its graphic design guidelines on Behance (Part 1 and Part 2), illustrating a very distinct style and conveying detailed principles.

From leader to laggard
For a company that really taught the market how much design truly matters, Apple (NASDAQ: AAPL  ) has admittedly lagged its mobile rival in some respects over the past couple years, most notably in the iOS user interface.

The 2007 look and feel of iOS simply wouldn't cut it any more in 2013, and Apple's dramatic overhaul of the core interface is an important risk that the company must take. Apple is now doubling down on design, even though that has always been one of its core values.

It goes beyond iOS. Apple is reaffirming this to the world and launching a new ad campaign that shows how serious it is about strengthening its brand. One clip outlines the underlying philosophies that drive each product.

Another drives home the emotional connection that Apple wants customers to make with technology. The first word in Apple's "signature" has always been "Designed" for a reason.

At a time when rivals are increasingly hostile with their ad campaigns, Apple is putting the focus back on the consumer and emphasizing how it can design products to improve people's lives.

And back to leader again
Much like Google, this renewed shift is being facilitated by Apple's own structural shift toward increased collaboration under Tim Cook. This is perhaps one of Cook's most important and underappreciated moves since becoming CEO, perhaps because it is only now starting to bear fruit. Steve Jobs had set up an organizational hierarchy within Apple that favored departmentalism due to his obsession with secrecy, even internally. That reduced the chances of leaks, but also arguably hindered Apple's ability to collaborate.

Previous iOS chief Scott Forstall was notoriously difficult to work with, and his ouster allowed all of software engineering to be consolidated under Craig Federighi. Jony Ive taking over all interface design is paving the way for a more coherent look between hardware and software.

iOS 7 icon design. Source: Apple.

Given the magnitude of the iOS 7 overhaul, there's already much debate regarding the new look. More important than individual nitpicks about some ugly icons or unfamiliar elements (things that can be addressed or updated in future releases), Apple is signaling the start of a new era of even tighter integration between hardware, software, and services with a greater focus on unified design.

As Ive puts it:

We brought together a broad range of expertise, from design to engineering. With what we've been able to achieve together, we see iOS 7 as defining an important new direction, and in many ways a beginning.

Apple is coming back with a vengeance.

There's no doubt that Apple is at the center of technology's largest revolution ever, and that longtime shareholders have been handsomely rewarded with over 1,000% gains. However, there is a debate raging as to whether Apple remains a buy. The Motley Fool's senior technology analyst and managing bureau chief, Eric Bleeker, is prepared to fill you in on reasons to buy and reasons to sell Apple, and what opportunities are left for the company (and your portfolio) going forward. To get instant access to his latest thinking on Apple, simply click here now.

Read/Post Comments (14) | Recommend This Article (50)

Comments from our Foolish Readers

Help us keep this a respectfully Foolish area! This is a place for our readers to discuss, debate, and learn more about the Foolish investing topic you read about above. Help us keep it clean and safe. If you believe a comment is abusive or otherwise violates our Fool's Rules, please report it via the Report this Comment Report this Comment icon found on every comment.

  • Report this Comment On June 14, 2013, at 7:42 AM, luxetlibertas wrote:

    "Apple has admittedly lagged its mobile rival in some respects over the past couple years, most notably in the iOS user interface."

    Citation needed.

    Nothing wrong with the old iOS interface or the new interface. Superficial design changes of icons mean very little. It is the deeper usability that matters, and which is indeed alway the main focus at Apple.

    An important advantage of Apple's mobile platform is the relative lack of fragmentation. With so many different Android devices with many different form factors, versions and possible customizations, Android distracts its users and is less productive than iOS.

  • Report this Comment On June 14, 2013, at 12:13 PM, bbyboi wrote:

    They also copied everything from Windows Phone..

  • Report this Comment On June 14, 2013, at 12:23 PM, CharlieTX wrote:

    Us consumers just * LOVE * competition between companies making things we use. Apple is raising the bar, and Google will respond by raising it again. Both have their detractors, like those who rally against Apple's relatively closed/controlled system that allows them to better control the end-to-end experience. And some say Android's fragmentation is bad, not willing to accept that is is all about choice and options (especially if they are Apple fans and have only one choice). Both companies are doing good work, and with competition it will get better and less expensive.

  • Report this Comment On June 14, 2013, at 12:59 PM, michaelayes wrote:

    Am I a Luddite? Other than the stock market price obsessions, I don't see Apple and Google in the same business. Sure, both are computer systems related, but Apple has a whole ecosystem of top notch hardware, iPhone, MacPro, etc. And, to me, Google is just a search engine for the web, which doesn't do any better job than any other engine, and collects, collects data, and sell ads I don't want to see. I used Yahoo for search before Google became so popular. What's the big deal? Too much of web content is dubious, and no search engine has found a decent way to present results yet. A list, of pages with possibly worthless info, and too many sponsored results. Google is in the ad business, and consumer data collection, while pretending to be a content provider.

  • Report this Comment On June 14, 2013, at 1:39 PM, mullet3 wrote:

    @michaelayes - I don't know if you are a Luddite or not. However, you haven't been paying attention to Google lately if you don't think they are in the same business as Apple. Google was directly competing with Apple's iOS software with its release of Android in 2007, and last year it purchased Motorola and now competes in both the hardware and software realms.

  • Report this Comment On June 14, 2013, at 2:01 PM, dwatson102 wrote:

    I have an iPhone, My son has a Motorola Razr Android phone. All I know is mine always turns on, always works, never crashes or hangs, and does not require any fussing around. He cannot make any of the same claims. Sure some of it is his age but the ecosystem for android seems to have a lot of crap in it. I have not found that to be true with IOS.

  • Report this Comment On June 14, 2013, at 2:03 PM, WineHouse wrote:

    I would add to mullet3's reply to michaelayes that Google has also been developing completely new products, such as Google glass, etc. It is likely that Apple has been working on (and probably even patenting) similar processes and products, and as someone holding shares of Apple and Google I certainly worry about an old fashioned patent fight breaking out, but I do think that Google is Apple's biggest competitor right now. Also, Samsung has announced a new TV set that interfaces with the user in very modern new ways which might be a rival to whatever Apple is working on in the TV arena.

  • Report this Comment On June 14, 2013, at 3:28 PM, frosty77 wrote:

    michaelayes, you say "to me, Google is just a search engine for the web". If that is true, you are grossly out of touch. Search is where Google started, but it's just a slice of their business now. They are in hardware and software in a BIG way.

  • Report this Comment On June 14, 2013, at 5:13 PM, ShamanWizard wrote:

    Frankly, I think Apple is cleaner. I've had both and do no particularly like android. I also believe that age is a factor. My children love Android and my wife and I prefer Apple. Me...I will never use android again. Apple is slick, easy, and always works.

  • Report this Comment On June 14, 2013, at 7:53 PM, Monica109 wrote:

    I have noticed for some time now that the Yahoo!Search is now very similar to the google search windows. Is anyone else noticing that?

  • Report this Comment On June 15, 2013, at 2:41 PM, ChrisBern wrote:

    @ShamanWizard-- I had an iPhone for a few years but switched to the Galaxy S3 Android device about 9 months ago. The funny thing is I actually prefer iOS to Android for some of the reasons you cited. But the S3 device was simply more practical because it had a significantly larger screen--large enough to even read Kindle books on--and because it has a much faster processor and internet speeds (at least at the time of my purchase). When I use someone's iPhone now it feels and looks like a toy compared to my S3. And I should mention I have a MacBook Pro and iPod Shuffle, both of which I like a lot, so I am an Apple fan in general. In fact if I were to buy a tablet it would probably be an iPad. But for a phone, the iPhone hardware simply got passed up in my opinion by some of the Android products. Chances are Apple will make the necessary improvements to regain its lead, but I didn't want to wait for that time/date. Just my opinion...

  • Report this Comment On June 15, 2013, at 7:43 PM, dsciola wrote:

    I think the real question is can AAPL, as more of a device maker vs GOOG whom focuses more on software, sustain or even improve its margins?

    Its products command a substantial premium..whether deservedly or not...if consumers start equating an iPhone to any Android phone and then start selecting Android phones for the cheaper price, then AAPL's margins will likely decline...and start getting closer to typical electronic companies' margins, e.g. Sony at around 20%, vs pure-play software players like GOOG with gross margins in excess of 60%

    I think the last few quarters have shown that not even AAPL is immune to tech products being commoditized, and that in my opinion is why the market is pricing in further declines and valuing AAPL primarily on its gross margin...


  • Report this Comment On June 18, 2013, at 4:12 PM, rdbtechjunkie wrote:

    Interesting debate to be sure! There are so many things that are so good about both operating systems it really comes down to a personal preference. I think many of the Apple critics have such an aversion to the monopolistic business practices that they don't care which is better. They wouldn't care if Android was inferior they would use it anyway out of spite for Apple. I will say, however, that I have come full circle. I am a heavy tech user! For me, I look at what a device can be, and not what it is out of the box. Apple is by far simpler to use and more consistent in its functionality. I use an ipad and have a Macbook Pro, and an itouch. However, my primary device is an Android phone and a Samsung laptop PC because there are so many things it can do that Apple just simply can't! To be fair, there are sometimes software conflicts and occasional hangups, but they keep getting less and less as time goes on. The freedom you have for virtually limitless customization is not possible with Apple. That all being said, I got my father (age 73) an iphone for fathers day. He simply does not have the time or the patience, or frankly the desire to do all the things I want my phone to do. I hope Apple finds a way to "control" their ecosystem and still maintain system security and stability. Otherwise, Google will run away with the phone market just by the sheer volume of Google phones sold here and overseas.

  • Report this Comment On June 18, 2013, at 4:48 PM, FoolyWell wrote:

    I used a Moto Droid X for 2 yrs; I now have used an iPhone5 for almost 1 yr. Hands down, the iPhone is sleeker, faster and easier to use. But then, perhaps later Android devices have stepped up.

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