“I’m going to destroy Android, because it’s a stolen product,” Steve Jobs says in author Walter Isaacson’s 2011 biography of the late Apple co-founder.
Jobs’ fury around Google and its smartphone software is well documented, and the many lawsuits involving Apple and various Android partners showed that Jobs was serious about his allegations of theft. But the reality is that both Apple and Google have taken inspiration from each other for years and that neither company would be where it is today without the work of the other.
So as Android celebrates its 15th birthday (since the launch of the first Android-based phone, the T-Mobile G1), let’s take a look back at the journey the companies have taken to becoming the most dominant forces in the tech world — and how their competition pushed them to innovate.
The Williams sisters grew up with competition in their blood, challenging each other on the court and learning to read each other’s movements so precisely that they could respond with the exact play needed to counter — and win. Competing against the best helped Venus and Serena reach the top of their game, learning how to beat not just each other but also other rivals in the sport, in much the same way Apple and Google have done.
The two companies’ volleying back and forth pushed them ahead in the game, and allowed them to fight off other challengers, like the once-dominant BlackBerry, as well as Nokia and its short-lived Symbian platform. Even tech giant Microsoft and its Windows Phone failed to thrive in the face of the heated competition from Apple and Google.
But though the relationship today between the iPhone maker and the Android purveyor hardly matches the Williams’ friendly, familial rivalry, that wasn’t always the case. Let’s take a look back.
Android began as its own company (Android Inc.) back in 2003, and it wasn’t acquired by Google until 2005. Meanwhile, Apple already had success with mobile products in the form of the iPod, the iPhone began development in secret in 2004 and Jobs was reportedly approached to become Google CEO.
Jobs didn’t take the role, but Google found a CEO in Eric Schmidt, who in 2006 became part of Apple’s board of directors. “There was so much overlap that it was almost as if Apple and Google were a single company,” journalist Steven Levy wrote in his 2011 book In the Plex: How Google Thinks, Works, and Shapes Our Lives. Things didn’t stay as cozy, however.
Sometimes it’s difficult, if not impossible, to say whether these companies are copying each other’s ideas or simply coming up with the same conclusions after paying attention to consumer trends, rumors in the press and the general evolution of supporting technologies.
Rumors that Apple would remove the physical home button on the iPhone X were circling long before the phone was officially unveiled in September 2017. Are they the same rumors Samsung responded to when it “beat Apple to the punch” and removed the home button from its Galaxy S8 earlier that same year? Or did both sides simply arrive at such a big design decision independently?
It’s impossible to pick a side in this argument — and somewhat reductive to even try. And regardless, you wind up with the same thing: Phones and software from different manufacturers that seem to evolve in unison.
In 2023, Android is by far the dominant smartphone platform, with 70.8% market share globally against Apple’s 28.4% (according to information from Statista). But Google’s focus has always been on getting the Android operating system onto as many devices as possible, from phones costing less than $50 to those costing over $1,500. Apple, meanwhile, offers iOS only on its own devices, and those devices come at a hefty premium, so it’s fair to expect that iOS won’t be as widespread.
Yet it’s still clear to see the ways the two operating systems have converged over the years. Though Android was always the more customizable of the two, Apple eventually introduced home-screen widgets, customizable lock screens and even the ability to create icon themes to transform the look of your device.
Meanwhile, Google worked hard to limit the problems caused by fragmentation and has arguably taken more of an “Apple” approach in its own line of devices. Like Apple’s iPhones, the phones in the more recent Pixel range — including the excellent Pixel 7 Pro — were designed to show off “the best of Google,” with processors produced in house (as Apple does with the chips for its iPhones) and software optimized for the Pixel phone it’ll run on.
Though Android may be ahead in terms of numbers of users, Google has clearly seen that Apple is leading the way in terms of a more premium, refined hardware experience, and the Pixel series is Google’s answer. Having reviewed both the Pixel 6 Pro and Pixel 7 Pro myself, I can say with certainty that they’re the most Apple-like experience you can get from an Android phone.
“We are at an interesting crossroads for Android,” says Ben Woods, industry analyst at CCS Insight. “Although its success in volume terms is undisputed, it is increasingly losing share to Apple in the premium smartphone space.” Google’s Pixel phones are some of the best Android phones around, but sales of the devices are a fraction of what Apple sees with the iPhone.
Rather than looking toward more-experimental innovations like foldable displays, Apple has instead continued to refine its existing hardware, equipping its latest iPhone 15 Pro series with titanium designs and improved cameras. And Apple’s approach also includes pulling people into the wider Apple ecosystem, with iPhones syncing seamlessly with other Apple products, including Apple Watches, iPads, Macs, HomePods and Apple TV.
With each new iPhone customer comes an opportunity for Apple to sell additional products from its own catalog, along with services like iCloud storage, Apple Music, Apple Fitness or subscriptions to its Apple TV streaming service. Though Google offers products like this to some extent, it has yet to offer the sort of cohesive package Apple does, which could make Google’s offerings less enticing for new customers and tempt Android users to jump ship to Apple.
Still, Android’s proliferation across devices at lower price points will continue to make it a popular choice for people on tighter budgets. And its presence on a huge number of devices from third-party manufacturers means it’s where we’ll see more innovation that seeks to answer the question of what role the smartphone plays in our lives.