How Google Differs From Apple, According to Steve Jobs

Source: Thinkstock

Source: Thinkstock

Recent interviews with tech industry luminaries who knew the legendary Apple Co-founder Steve Jobs have yielded fascinating insights into the company’s culture and how it stands opposite to that of Google, one of its top tech rivals.

One such revelation came in an interview of Google Co-founder and Chief Executive Larry Page by Richard Waters of the Financial Times. Page told Waters of his ideological differences with Jobs, explaining, “He would always tell me, ‘You’re doing too much stuff. I’d be like, You’re not doing enough stuff.’”

The counterargument that Page would make to Jobs reflects the wide scope of Google’s aspirations, which now go even beyond its wide mission statement to “organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.”

And asked whether that means that the company needs a new mission statement, Page answered, “I think we do, probably.” Asked what it should be, he admitted, “We’re still trying to work that out.”

In response to Jobs’s assertion that he was “doing too much stuff,” Page told Waters, “It’s unsatisfying to have all these people, and we have all these billions we should be investing to make people’s lives better. If we just do the same things we did before and don’t do something new, it seems like a crime to me.”

Investing the revenue from Google’s advertising business is not only a matter of public good — it also positions the company to gain a head start in fields that it expects to explode in the future, “from biotech to robotics,” as Waters puts it. But for Page, the point that Jobs was making is still well-taken. Waters notes that technology is an industry where few leaders of one generation “make it big” in the next, and Page is carefully considering Google’s limits and the ways to push past them.

Google X, the company’s secretive research division, was just the beginning of a side of Google that now includes business units like Calico and Nest, and also an upcoming unit comprised of the company’s investments in Internet access and energy. Google Ventures has emerged as the most active venture capitalist in Silicon Valley, and Page says there is no model for the kind of company that Google wants to become.

While Google’s strategy is to prepare for the future by conducting research in as many disparate areas as possible, Apple takes the opposite approach, focusing on a narrow selection of core products, and almost never arriving to a product category first. The importance of focus has always been apparent, but its significance was spotlighted during an appearance of Jony Ive, Apple’s chief designer, at Vanity Fair’s New Establishment Summit in San Francisco.

As Lessley Anderson reported at the time, Ive told Vanity Fair Editor Graydon Carter that Steve Jobs was “the most remarkably focused person I ever met in my life.” Jobs taught Ive that focus meant “not doing something that, with every bone in your body, you think is a phenomenal idea” if it would prevent you from staying committed to a broader goal.


Jobs was often perceived as a harsh manager, but Ive characterized him as “beautifully focused,” even when that trait resulted in a “brutal” design critique with Ive and his team. After the meeting, when Ive asked why Jobs had been so harsh, telling him that they had been putting our heart and soul into it and that he cared about his team, Jobs reportedly responded, “No, Jony, you’re just really vain. You just want people to like you.”

Ive ultimately came to realize that he agreed that it was more important to do great work than to make people happy. And Jobs’s idea of focus seems as much in practice at Apple now as it was when he was at its helm. And while Apple continues to focus its resources on the development of a relatively homogeneous range of mobile devices, computers, and now its first wearable device and mobile payments system, Google takes an opposite approach, experimenting with the types of good ideas that Jobs might have ruled out by making investments, launching “moonshot” projects through Google X, or otherwise creating initiatives to conduct research or develop products that sometimes go quite far afield of the advertising business that finances it all.

Both companies are committed to innovation — to bringing new products, services, and ideas to the industry. While Apple has built its success and reputation on leveraging the ability of a consumer-ready product to solve a problem or redefine a product category, Google is growing more comfortable with the approach of identifying a problem and entering into an open-ended research project in search of an answer.


An easy example of Google’s open-ended approach is the Baseline Study, the research project the company announced this summer. The plan is to use Baseline to map the genetics of health in the hope of finding biomarkers that might indicate the early presence of disease. Other examples are the self-driving car, Google Glass, the company’s multiple acquisitions of robotics firms, and the other research that goes on behind the closed doors of divisions like Google X.

But as Waters reports from his interview with Page, the Google co-founder is aware of his own limits, even if his ambitions for Google know no bounds. Like Apple, which carefully says no to many ideas during the many stages of developing its products, Google may also need to find a focus to give each of its different projects and units direction. Page admitted that “What Steve said is right – you, Larry, can only manage so many things.”

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