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Google's Schmidt says Apple and Android struggle is the 'defining fight in the industry today'

AllThingsD's Walt Mossberg (left) and Kara Swisher (middle) interview Google Chairman Eric Schmidt. | Source: AllThingsD

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In an interview with AllThingsD on Wednesday, Google Chairman Eric Schmidt said the battle between smartphone platforms is the most substantial fight in the history of computer technology, and more specifically the clash between Apple's iOS and Google's Android will help shape the tech landscape of the future.

AllThingsD's Walt Mossberg and Kara Swisher sat down with Schmidt for over an hour, probing the Google executive about his thoughts on the smartphone industry, Google's presence as a platform company and specific questions regarding the search giant's relationship with Apple.

Speaking in broad terms, Schmidt reiterated his "gang of four" theory which says there are currently four network platform companies that have significant sway in dictating how the world interacts with consumer electronics and, to a great extent, each other. These companies are Facebook, Amazon, Apple and Google.

While each company has a different business model, Amazon wants to be the world's largest store for example, Schmidt said the vast amount of resources poured into development combined with intertwining relationships ultimately adds up to "amazing" benefits for the consumer. He did note, however, that one platform war stands out as the "defining fight of the industry" today: the struggle between Apple and Google.

According to Schmidt, Google is trouncing Apple in terms of users, citing surveys that say Android devices outnumber their iOS counterparts four to one, adding that the mobile OS could see one billion users within the next year.

"There's a huge race now, specifically between Apple and the Android platform, for additional features of one kind or another," Schmidt said. "We would argue that if you're using the Chrome platform, you have the world's most powerful front-end browser and in many countries, Chrome is now the number one browser."

He went on to say that the widespread adoption of Chrome, as well as the Google's reach online, has allowed Google to offer an advanced set of cloud-based applications offered only on Android.

Schmidt Talking

The discussion inevitably turned to Apple's replacement of the Google Maps-powered iOS app with the new iOS 6 Maps, a solution based on proprietary technology resulting from a number of acquisitions and partnerships. When the service launched alongside the iPhone 5 in September, pundits and consumers both bemoaned the app for its apparently spurious mapping information as well as a lack of detail and features.

When asked what he thought about the situation, Schmidt snidely said, "Apple should have kept with our maps," a remark echoing the sentiments he offered shortly after iOS Maps launched in September.

Mossberg cut in to say that Google neglected to keep "feature parity" between Android's mapping app and its iOS counterpart. More directly, built-in turn-by-turn navigation was mentioned, alluding to a feature some have averred to be the reason why Apple switched to its own mapping solution.

"We negotiated all these details with Apple, and the fact of the matter is they decided a long time ago to do their own maps," Schmidt countered. "I think what Apple has learned is that maps are really hard. I think they really are hard."

He noted that Google spent "hundreds of millions of dollars" in data gathering for its mapping solution, which includes satellite, plane and "drive-by" information.

Incomplete Data
Google Maps' building data (left) versus same view on Apple's Maps (right).

In regard to Apple's decision to ditch Google Maps, Swisher asked, "Why would [Apple] keep your maps," to which Schmidt replied, "They're better maps."

As for the possibility of a native iOS Google Maps app, the Google chairman remained cagey, saying only that Apple is responsible for approving apps that are distributed through the App Store. Schmidt ultimately refused to "pre-announce" any of Google's supposed iOS offerings.

While a full-fledged app may still be months away, Google's Street View went live for the Google Maps web app earlier this month, granting iOS device users access to the feature through the Safari web browser.

Street View
Google Street View in mobile Safari. | Source: Google

Later in the interview, Schmidt commented on the ongoing "patent wars," many of which involve technology from Apple and Google, and said they were "death." Patent litigation has reached a point where smaller companies can no longer protect their inventions.

“I think this is ultimately bad, bad for innovation," Schmidt said, adding, "It eliminates choices.”

Although he had some choice words for Apple, Schmidt admitted he would always have a "soft spot" for the company as he had served on its board for three years. A question from the audience perhaps sums up Schmidt's respect for Apple:

"If you had to be a CEO again, would you choose Apple, Amazon or Facebook?" Schmidt responded dryly, "Which one has the most cash? Would be Apple."