You may have noticed a recent (2015) trend in the design of mobile and web apps where a certain not totally flat design aesthetic with some interesting new animation effects such as button “ripples” and subtly textured layers can be seen sliding on top and under each other.
What you’ve been seeing, whether you realize it or not, is the unified expression of Google’s design thinking, as expressed in a design ethos called “Material Design“. Despite on the surface being an esoteric effort in terms of providing some “plumbing” and non-proprietary design guidelines, Material Design has a secret mission: blow a hole in Apple’s differentiation, and give the Mobile advantage back to Google.
Since Material Design is Google’s initiative and project, it’s likely you’ve seen at least a few apps with this unique style — especially if you’re on Android devices or spend much time with Google web applications. In fact, even in iOS, famously referred to as Apple’s “Walled Garden”, is being infiltrated with this very particular style… and it’s no coincidence. In terms of a strategic mindshare, I would argue that Material Design might just be the most important contribution to open source and the advancement of the industry that Google has made since the release of Android.
“Apple may have a blind spot here which Google is aptly exploiting… when it comes to really embracing web technology, as in open REST api access and developer tools for web developers, there is really nothing there to build upon.”
Business Model Differentiation and the Web
We can start to see how this type of design thinking might impact the big picture, but first we need to take a look at their business models, Google and Apple are very different beasts.
Despite being broadly associated with Internet Search, email, and “Software as a Service for the Masses” — Google is more aptly thought of as an Advertising Company differentiated through its use of Internet-centric platforms and services as its primary delivery mechanism. Driving their advantage in dominant search, video, and email platforms, Google has milked an epic cash cow for well over a decade, becoming a highly profitable technology behemoth with a breadth and reach. This cash position has allowed them to subsidize free products and services which further their advertising reach at some cost to their user’s privacy.
Apple on the other hand is a straight up Consumer Hardware and Technology brand. Looking at the emphasis that Apple places on hardware which hinges its excellence on design, quality, and a vertical integration with it’s highly locked-down proprietary software stack, you can see their preference for vendor lockin is a major theme to protect their all-important brand and user experience on their premium devices. The barrier to entry to a competitor to Apple is phenomenally high, considering the investment in IP, global brand awareness, and supply chain alone. However that barrier hinges upon the maintenance of an unassailable consumer brand desire — which Apple has literally perfected as an art form bordering on religion through their product design mission.
In technical strategy terms, mobile web apps can be searched by Google and increase the reach of Google ads by creating new content pages for links and search results. As we know iOS has surged in popularity and mobile has begun to encroach on web usage. Because of this Google has been struggling to avoid being locked out of Mobile ad revenue due to the lack of search deep into the data built into iOS mobile apps. In this battle of the behemoths match-up, we can see that any increase in web-based internet usage is playing to Google’s strength in web apps and services, and is helping them retain deep links into web-based apps that are indistinguishable from native mobile apps.
On the other hand, with AppEngine, Google Apps, and even Android’s use of Java as it’s App development language, Google is clearly in the opposite camp — driving adoption of web technology and web app development means that Google retains a shot at web searchable content, and expanding the footprint for their advertising networks.
So we can see how Google is firing a shot over Apple’s bow with a direct assault on Apple’s core competency — design, and is using their strong-suit in web and open source developer technologies to distribute and promote Material Design not just for native Java mobile apps on Android, but for web apps — is a reason to sit up and reach for the popcorn as we witness an alternate ending of the Google vs. Apple show. And we are beginning with the end of the days of the famously unsexy Google app designs.
The Epic Battle for Developer Loyalty
So, with this unfolding scene we can see the battlefield come into focus. While Apple continues to pour on the syrup and slather on the butter with new proprietary but incredibly compelling APIs such as those surrounding their Apple Watch and expansion into the Home Automation, Health and Research Applications, and content ecosystems (iTunes) — the burden on developers to learn these complex and proprietary APIs and platforms which are explicitly incompatible with any other platform is a high price to pay.
Partially because of this state of affairs, Mobile Web is seeing renewed interest from developers who may have previously written it off for well-founded complaints about performance and “real app” look and feel. Developers are again being drawn to mobile native “wrappers” like PhoneGap that allow web apps to access some of these native APIs, Web technology projects like Famo.us — which allows for native-speed performance of web animations and UI components, cross-platform backend platforms like Starter Ignite which make it easier to create mobile and web apps that work the same on different devices.
And Web developers mobile and otherwise have not been standing still over the past few years as Mobile has marched forward. Component libraries and UI toolkits like Bootstrap.js and React.js have made huge gains in creating beautiful dynamic web applications with standardized usage that has greatly improved productivity and consistency of the web app landscape.
So into this landscape we see where Google can play the Material Design card. By promoting a new standard for app look and feel that is platform agnostic — a look and feel that in fact that thrives in a mixed web/mobile web/native mobile hybrid environment — Google might just succeed in reclaiming lost ground in the searchable, advertisement-friendly web.
By promoting the current generation of developers who are fed up with platform fragmentation, and increased workloads faced in developing and supporting 3 platforms (native Android, native iOS, and Web,) Google is exploiting its strength in web application technology using a blunt tool of design thinking that Apple has used to dominate the industry.