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According to common wisdom, Apple and Samsung are in a death fight to lead the world in smartphone market share. But that’s the problem with common wisdom; it’s usually wrong.

I was really looking forward to using the Samsung Galaxy S4 to get back into the Android ecosystem after more than a year of using just an iPhone and iPad. In fact, I had put in an order for one from Verizon. But I canceled the order.

Instead I bought a Google Nexus 4 online, direct from Google. “Nexus 4 comes with the latest Google apps, putting the best of Google in the palm of your hand,” says Google, on the linked page above. The best of Google! If I had bought the Samsung, I would have gotten some version of Google (Jelly Bean plus a selection of Google’s apps), but they wouldn’t be the best in part because Samsung considers itself a tech company and has developed a lot of its own software and in part because Google likes to serve its interests first, before giving stuff to its OEM partners (not customers, since they get it for free).

So now I have Apple’s latest smartphone (until they come out with the iPhone 5S or 6) and Google’s latest smartphone (until they come out with the Nexus 5). The conclusion: Apple’s OS is better than Google’s but Google’s applications are WAY better than Apple’s.

In fact, the cognoscenti are now calling Apple’s own apps (Mail, Calendar, Contacts, Maps, iTunes, Music, Passbook, etc.) “Crapps”. Savvy users are putting them in a special folder to get them out of the way, since Apple won’t allow you to delete their apps, regardless of how bad they are. And software developers are making new apps that are better than Apples, although they face the prospect of competing with an incompetent monopoly. (Witness that most iPhone users use Google Maps, even though they have to copy and paste addresses because Apple doesn’t give you a way to select which map app you want to use by default.)

What is Apple thinking? That its users are so dumb that they will slavishly stick to the phone that has about the same hardware capabilities even though they are forced by Apple to use inferior apps and give no control over their own decisions about how to configure their phone and application software? That’s a fascinating approach to maintaining market share in the face of fierce competition from knowledgeable competitors.

But the more interesting question is: What is Google thinking? There is a credible argument to be made that, starting well before it bought Motorola Mobility, Google had decided to implement a long-term strategy to outsmart Apple. They had to have patents, sure, but they also needed hardware and industrial engineers, a hardware culture that is nearly impossible to create inside a software company and takes decades to cultivate anyway. Beyond that, the company needed to bring along its operating system to a similar level of sophistication and maturity as IOS, which had a 4-year lead. And it needed to have a competitive set of mobile applications. You could argue that Google intentionally used its hardware “partners” (particularly HTC and Samsung) to accelerate that whole process, learning from the mistakes that they made competing with Apple by “giving the software away”.

Did you know that the only place you can buy a Google Nexus 4 smartphone is online? It does not come with a service contract or even a

What Google claims for its Nexus 4 phone

What Google claims for its Nexus 4 phone

SIM card. You have to get your own. It does not come with any shipping options: It is sent by 2-day courier. And it does not come with ANY customer service, nobody to call if you need help (just like everything else that Google does). In return, you get a first class piece of hardware with ALL of Google’s apps always updated for free for $299. And you register by entering your unique Google ID, which means that all your data is backed up in the cloud and synchronized across any other devices that are also registered with your Google ID.

In fact, it is remarkable that Google is now only one of three vendors who can provide cross platform, personalized service to its registered users. Apple does it. And Amazon.com does it. (Amazon is worth a whole other post, since it is now firmly in the hardware business and provides its own OS and apps, without requiring anything more from Google than the Android kernel and basic services.) Indeed, the experience of using the Google Nexus 4 is remarkably similar to using the iPhone: integrated music, movie and book reading software; integrated store and ecommerce capabilities; intelligent learning of your habits and preferences for recommendations. Some might say that it’s better than the iPhone universe (see above for the definition of “Crapps”.)

Because Google doesn’t do distribution through retail, because it doesn’t provide support, because it has a great but not leading-edge hardware product, and because it does not provide subsidized service from the carriers, it can sell the Nexus 4 straight up for $299 and still make money on it. In fact, it is innovating in its business model in a way that should scare the living bejesus out of both Apple and Samsung, both of which are wound tight as a bug with the wireless operators and can’t get out of those relationships without seriously damaging their business model (which now officially account for 100% of the profits in the wireless service business, possibly more).

Personally, I hope Google is smart enough to be deploying exactly this kind of strategy to outsmart Apple. While I still love my IOS products, I am increasingly grumpy and pissed off at Apple for their crappy attitude toward me as a customer. And the last thing I want is to have to go to the Verizon store for what they think of as “customer service.”

Stewart Alsop authored this post.

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