According to an upcoming book by noted technology writer Steven Levy, Google (Nasdaq: GOOG) and Apple (Nasdaq: AAPL) could have been very different today if a single decision taken back in 1999 had gone the other way. To wit:

[Google co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin] took a Magical Mystery Tour of high-tech royalty: Apple’s Steve Jobs, Intel’s (Nasdaq: INTC) Andy Grove, Intuit’s Scott Cook,’s (Nasdaq: AMZN) Jeff Bezos, and others. Then they came back to [famed venture capitalist John] Doerr.

“We agree with you,” they told him; they were ready to hire a CEO. But they would only consider one person: Steve Jobs.

In the real world, Page and Brin had to settle for the less-heralded CEO of Novell (Nasdaq: NOVL) instead, and Eric Schmidt certainly did a fine job of leading Google through its first full decade and more. But what if Jobs had seen something special in Google way back then and decided to take the job?

Steve Jobs? Working for Google? You're nuts!
Before you dismiss the very idea as ridiculous, consider where he was in 1999. After losing his CEO title in 1985, Jobs had spent more than a decade running NeXT and then Pixar. Though he made his triumphant return to Apple with the NeXT buyout in 1996, he was officially nothing more than the interim CEO between 1997 and 2000.

At age 44, Jobs had a temporary-sounding title at a company that had already gotten rid of him once -- hardly an ideal situation. And here was this red-hot startup telling him that he was the perfect CEO -- the only acceptable choice even in the presence of such tech legends as Grove and Bezos. At the end of 1999, Bezos' Amazon was coming off an amazing 6,000% run since its 1997 IPO, and Grove's Intel had gained nearly 4,000% in the 1990s as personal computers became ubiquitous. Yet those proven leaders weren't good enough for Google, and only Jobs would do. That's the ultimate compliment, dude.

Would you have stayed at Apple under those conditions or jumped ship to Google? Given Jobs' propensity to take startups to the next level (think Pixar before the Mouse House buyout or NeXT as the foundation for Mac OS X), that decision could easily have gone the other way.

Welcome to Bizarro World!
So let's go back to 1999 and replace Schmidt with a Steve Jobs eager to prove his superstar status in a new setting. What would the Turtlenecked One have done differently?

First of all, you'd better believe that product design would be a very different beast from today's Google model. Under Schmidt, Google has worked under the premise of releasing stuff very early, perhaps slapping a "beta" tag on even the most ambitious and important offerings and then making it work in a process of rapid iteration.

That just wouldn't fly under Jobs. The first iPhone might look aged and tired next to the iPhone 4, but it was a groundbreaking piece of gear when it was new and as close to perfection as you could have expected at the time. Did you ever see a bad Pixar movie? The list of examples is endless, but the point I'm making is simple: A Jobs-powered Google would polish every potential product to a high gloss before presenting it to the world.

I don't think Gmail would exist under that paradigm, as it grew out of a programmer's side project and lost its beta tag only after five years on the market. The YouTube acquisition might have happened thanks to Jobs' fascination with entertainment media, but not without building a solid ecosystem first. A portable media player akin to the iPod Touch could have filled that need, Google-branded but manufactured by the Apple folks he would have left behind, or perhaps by an outsider such as Samsung Electronics or HTC. Without a monetizing property at the ready, Jobs would have let that deal go elsewhere.

So what's different this time?
In fact, Jobs' sense of fiscal discipline would have cut down on Google's splurge-happy tendencies. DoubleClick might have passed muster, as it is very relevant to Google's core competencies in online search and advertising, but most of those big checks would have remained unwritten.

Of course, the changes wouldn't all focus on cutting things back and restraining Google's wild horses. Jobs would obviously have brought new projects to the table to define the company in his own image and make it largely unrecognizable to a visitor from our current reality.

Your guess is as good as mine as to what he'd do, though: Predicting where that inventive genius would go with the assets at Google's disposal is like guessing Garry Kasparov's moves five steps in advance. Good luck with that.

One thing seems obvious, though: The seeds of iTunes, the iPod, and the rest of that tremendous ecosystem might already have been sown in Jobs' mind, and they'd be about as appropriate to a young information wrangler as they were to a resurgent hardware maker. We'd just have gTunes, gPods, and the gPhone instead.

With an imperative to care more deeply about information (it's in Google's mission statement, after all), Jobs might have bought Netflix (Nasdaq: NFLX) early on rather than YouTube and then molded his content store into a long-form video powerhouse. Lose Gmail and YouTube and gain the wildly profitable iStuff instead? I know that's a tradeoff anyone would love to make if given the chance.

One more thing
So you'd largely have a tweaked version of today's Apple in this alternative-reality Google, but with less hardware (if any) and a tighter focus on Google's core technologies. Yes, I believe that Jobs' supersized persona would have made that large an imprint.

You'd also be surprised at how much Jobs wouldn't have changed. One of the first selling points for the Google search service was its clean, uncluttered design in an era of ad-happy search portals such as AltaVista and Lycos. Take a look at the still-elegant homepage at tell me you don't hear echoes of an Apple-like design philosophy there. Come on, I dare you to. Jobs would have felt right at home in Mountain View, even if the company needed a few tweaks here and there.

Apple and Google sure are stirring things up, but they're not alone. Watch this video to find out about another consumer-centric technology firm with a decades-long history that's about to explode into the mainstream in a whole new way. Click here to get started -- it's both free and educational.