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Apple and Google are playing catch-up — and that's a good thing

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One of the complaints I'm hearing with increasingly regularity in the wake of an Apple or Google launch event is that the company in question is "playing catch-up." Hey Apple, nice job with that Surface Pro clone. Ok Google, I see you have your own Alexa now. There's actually validity to these allegations, but I think the way we interpret the facts is wrong. Apple and Google are the two great giants of the tech world, and if they're having to catch up to others, that's just a sign of a thriving industry.

Google I/O just took place this past week in Mountain View, and the reception to its news has been split between those excited about the myriad of new projects at Google and those who see a bunch of alternative products or services already existing in the market. The Google Home speaker that's intended to serve as a smart family assistant is rightly compared to Amazon — and Google itself confessed that it was following in the online retailer's footsteps. Then there are the messaging apps: Google Allo as the WhatsApp competitor (which actually uses the same encryption tech as WhatsApp) and Google Duo to take on Apple's FaceTime. Even the ideas of smart clothes and modular phones have already been shown off by Intel and LG ahead of Google.

Much of Google I/O was familiar territory

As to Apple, its introduction of the larger iPad Pro was largely seen as a vindication of Microsoft's long-established belief that a keyboard and stylus are essential parts of mobile productivity. Where the Surface Pro led, the iPad Pro followed. Apple wasn't first to smartwatches; it wasn't even first to introduce 3D Touch to a smartphone, thanks to Huawei stealing a march with its own pressure-sensitive display on the Mate S. Now another Chinese manufacturer, Meizu, is beating Apple to what's been rumored to be its redesigned antenna lines.

On the software front, the most visible new additions to both iOS and Android over the past year have been split-screen multitasking and more sophisticated notifications with quick replies. Owners of Samsung Android phones and tablets have had the split-screen option for years now, and the smarter notifications are nothing new to most Android users either. Apple's been catching up to Google in allowing developers more access to core functionality in iOS, including the permission for third-party keyboards, while Google's been working hard behind the scenes to make Android's power consumption and resource management more like the iPhone's.

We need to stop interpreting progress through an adversarial lens

Are any of these developments bad? Of course not. We need to stop interpreting progress through an adversarial lens and simply celebrate it. Every time Apple plays catch-up to Google and vice versa, each ecosystem that the two support is enriched. It's even better when they're chasing the tail of a third competitor — that shows that there's still room for innovation outside of the two giants of mobile tech. Apple and Google will be leaders no matter what, but there's vast opportunity to outdo them in some narrower sphere, whether it be kitchen gadgets, living room assistants, or just very good utility apps like OutlookPocket Casts, or Dark Sky.

Just imagine the alternative scenario. We all wait around like troglodytes for most of our time and then the Apple and Google deities rain down innovation mana upon us once or twice a year. Wasn't that the plot of Mad Max: Fury Road? Innovation is driven by copying, by trying to catch up, succeeding, and then adding something else on top that moves things even further. We should celebrate Spotify's leadership with music, Twitter and Snapchat's importance in social media, and Pebble's resilience as a favored smartwatch brand. All of these smaller companies stimulate Apple and Google to improve, and they set examples to be followed.

A competitive industry is recognized by how hard its leaders have to work to stay ahead

If Apple and Google were constantly leading in everything, would they set a repeatable example or just slam the door shut behind them? I think we all know the answer to that question, and it's part of the reason why the European Commission is taking a closer look at Google's online search practices and Android OEM partnerships. One area where Apple and Google are going seemingly uncontested is car infotainment systems, with everyone (Toyota stubbornly excepted) transitioning to support CarPlay, Android Auto, or both. Is anyone satisfied with the state of infotainment systems today? Far from it.

A vibrant and competitive industry can be recognized by how hard its leaders have to work to stay ahead. In some respects, especially related to their mobile duopoly, Apple and Google could fall asleep at the wheel and never have to worry about being superseded. But technology moves fast, and established categories, such as the once-dominant desktop PC, quickly get bypassed by new modes of interaction and use. That's why Google is throwing all its energies into emerging tech like virtual reality and artificial intelligence. Apple is doing similar things, but keeping quieter about it.

There's no shame in being behind. When Samsung's smartphone sales started waning, it brilliantly transformed its entire lineup. When Microsoft felt the need for better Windows computers, it gave us the Surface Pro and the Surface Book. It's when big companies are forced to catch up that we get some of the best innovations.


The biggest news from Google I/O 2016