Mashable OP-ED: This post reflects the opinions of the author and not necessarily those of Mashable as a publication.

Apple and Google may look similar on the surface, but the companies couldn’t be any more different. That much has become clear to me after reading both the Steve Jobs biography by Walter Isaacson and Steven Levy’s In the Plex.

Google and Apple are technology behemoths that bucked the system, created game-changing products and are worth more than $550 billion collectively. Both companies have successful mobile phone divisions and web browsers, and both companies have a common enemy in Microsoft.

The two companies are built on completely different foundations, though. Sergey Brin and Larry Page firmly believe in the power of data and numbers, and that reliance on the metrics is the cornerstone of every major decision the company makes. “Information was the great leveler at Google,” Levy says in his book.

Steve Jobs, on the other hand, believed in the power of design and often threw out the data. “It’s really hard to design products by focus groups,” he famously said in a 1998 BusinessWeek interview. “A lot of times, people don’t know what they want until you show it to them.”

There is no starker contrast of the ying-yang battle of data vs. design. It’s that conflicting yet complementary relationship that sparked one of the industry’s closest friendships and, more recently, one of technology’s fiercest rivalries.


Google: Data Is King


For some reason, I decided to read both Steve Jobs and In the Plex at the same time (the former via Kindle, the latter via audiobook). It was a surreal experience, but it made it clear to me that Google and Apple are polar opposites.

Let’s start with Google. If you need proof that data is king at Google, look no further than In the Plex. The word “data” appears in Levy’s book approximately 319 times. “Design,” on the other hand, appears fewer than 60 times.

The emphasis on design comes directly from the founders, Larry Page and Sergey Brin. Here’s how Levy describes them in the beginning of the book:

“[Page and Brin] felt most comfortable in the meritocracy of academia, where brains trumped everything else. Both had an innate understanding of how the ultraconnected world that they enjoyed as computer science students was about to spread throughout society. Both shared a core belief in the primacy of data.”

The result is a company with a deliberately collegiate atmosphere, a strong meritocracy where engineers are king, and most of all a “deep respect for data.” Google is famous for making the tiniest changes to pixel locations based on the data it accrues through its tests. Google will always choose a spartan webpage that converts over a beautiful page that doesn’t have the data to back it up.

“It looks like a human was involved in choosing what went where,” Marissa Mayer once told an upset team of designers about a product design she rejected. “It looks too editorialized. Google products are machine-driven. They’re created by machines. And that is what makes us powerful. That’s what makes our products great.”


Apple: Design Is in Its DNA


Apple, on the other hand, falls on the opposite end of the spectrum. The word “design” and its variations appears in the Steve Jobs biography 432 times. The word “data” appears just 26 times in the book.

“I love it when you can bring really great design and simple capability to something that doesn’t cost much,” Jobs once told Isaacson. “It was the original vision for Apple. That’s what we tried to do with the first Mac. That’s what we did with the iPod.”

That emphasis on design derives from Jobs’s childhood experiences. Early in his life, his father taught him that it was important to craft the back of fences and cabinets properly, even though nobody would see them. Later in life, Jobs traveled through Asia and connected with the simplicity of Zen Buddhism.

Those lessons and experiences became part of his quest for perfection, a philosophy that is now essential to every product Apple ships.


Conclusion


Google has placed its faith in data, while Apple worships the power of design. This dichotomy made the two companies complementary. Apple would ship the phones and computers, while Google would provide Maps, Search, YouTube, and other web tools that made the devices more useful. But when Google decided to release its own mobile OS, their friendship quickly turned into a rivalry. And with Google poised to acquire a hardware company, that rivalry will only get stronger.

What can we learn from the battle between data and design? What can we learn from the relationship between Google and Apple?

Clearly no one school of thought is right: Apple and Google are both wildly successful and profitable companies that changed the world. Building a successful company (or living a happy life, for that matter) is not about embracing someone else’s philosophy, but staying true to your own beliefs about the world and learning from the mistakes you make along the way.

Second, design-focused companies tackle different types of problems than data-focused ones. A design-focused company like Apple (or Flipboard) will focus on creating revolutionary, never-before-seen products, because data isn’t great at predicting market revolutions. Data-focused companies like Google, however, have a better chance at revolutionizing existing markets because their products are simply better and more efficient. The search engine existed before Google, but the company used data to make the most effective one in the world. Apple, on the other hand, is credited with launching multiple revolutions, starting with personal computing.

Finally, while data and design are often opposing forces, they need each other as well. Jobs may have focused on design, but he didn’t ignore the data. When he saw the dropped call data from AT&T at the beginning of “Antennagate,” he rushed back from Hawaii to deal with it. The data provided the context on which he could design a response. Great design, even revolutionary ones, is built on solid data.

The Social Analyst is a column by Mashable Editor-at-Large Ben Parr, where he digs into social media trends and how they are affecting companies in the space.

Steve Jobs/Android image courtesy of Flickr, Jesus Belzunce

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Speaking at a panel on “Open Innovation” at the DLD conference in Munich, Germany, today Google’s VP of consumer products Marissa Mayer spoke about the recent changes in Google’s leadership.

“Well, for a long time Google has been a triumvirate … last Thursday they reshuffled,” said Mayer.

She also downplayed the importance of the CEO change, pointing out that Larry Page was already the CEO of Google once before. “There’s been a lot of people speculating about the changeover, but we’re really excited. A lot of people forget that Larry was the CEO for the first 3 years of the company.”

“Larry’s passion has always been around products and UX. He’s really gonna be focused on products and making sure we execute well across the board,” said Mayer.

More About: ceo, Conference, DLD11, Google, larry page, marissa mayer




The Social Analyst is a column by Mashable Co-Editor Ben Parr, where he digs into social media trends and how they are affecting companies in the space.

By almost all standards, Google is in great shape. It had a fantastic fourth quarter, increasing revenue by 26% from Q4 2009. It is the undisputed leader in search, YouTube is on fire and Android is giving Apple a run for its money.

Under the surface though, things aren’t all sunshine and roses. Google Buzz and Google Wave were failures. At the same time, Facebook has emerged as a legitimate threat to Google and has been stealing Google’s best talent. It’s gotten so bad that Google gave everybody a 10% raise in a desperate bid to retain talent.

Perhaps that’s why Larry Page is replacing Eric Schmidt as CEO. There was nobody accountable at the top, and now Google risks losing big ground to Facebook and Apple. This is Larry Page’s company now.

Thanks to Schmidt, Google is efficient, but it has also lost its ability to come up with a clear vision and execute upon it. What it needs now is a visionary leader to take Google to new heights, much like Apple’s Steve Jobs and Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg have done with their companies.

Google needs its own Steve Jobs, and it had better hope Larry Page is that man. Here’s why:


Bill Gates, Steve Ballmer and Steve Jobs


The graph below depicts the history of Microsoft’s stock price, starting from its 1986 IPO to today. In its entire history, the company has only had two CEOs: Bill Gates and Steve Ballmer. I’ve placed a line on the January 2000 mark to reflect when Bill Gates handed the reigns over to Steve Ballmer.

As you can see, Microsoft’s growth has stagnated since Ballmer has taken the helm. Gates, the visionary, was able to turn his company into a powerhouse by taking risks and creating groundbreaking products. Ballmer is an effective manager, but he is not a visionary.

Let’s be fair, though: when Ballmer took over, Microsoft was in the midst of a brutal antitrust investigation and the dot-com bubble. Plus, Gates was still at the company as the chief software architect and the keeper of the “technology vision” of the company. Still, he wasn’t calling the shots; Ballmer was.

Perhaps this is the more telling chart, though:

This is a graph depicting the changes in Microsoft and Apple’s market capitalizations over the last decade. In Q1 2001, Apple was worth a mere $7.64 billion, 1/38th the size of Microsoft’s massive $291.74 billion market cap.

As of this Friday, Apple is worth $300.92 billion. Microsoft, on the other hand, has dropped all the way down to $239.73 billion in market cap. The change in fortunes is absolutely astonishing.


When You Need a Visionary CEO


While there are thousands of factors that contributed to the decline of Microsoft and the rise of Apple, nobody can discount the impact their CEOs have had in the last decade.

Why was Steve Jobs declared “CEO of the Decade” by Fortune Magazine? It’s because he triumphantly returned to the company he founded, gave it a clear vision, and transformed Apple into one of the world’s most successful companies.

You don’t have to look far for visionary CEOs who’ve had a monstrous impact on their companies, either. Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, Oracle’s Larry Eliason, and Groupon’s Andrew Mason are just a few examples.

And it’s not just recently that visionary leaders that have changed the fates of their companies, either: Ford Motor Company’s Henry Ford, Standard Oil’s John Rockefeller and General Electric’s Thomas Edison redefined business, technology and industry in ways few others have.

It’s true that many companies don’t need visionary leaders. Sometimes a visionary isn’t an effective manager at a time when a company needs to focus on efficiency and not new products. However, visionaries are the best choice to take the helm when a company is first starting out, when it is out to redefine an industry or when it is stagnating or in decline.

Zuckerberg turned a young company into a $50 billion empire in less than a decade. Steve Jobs steered a company on the brink of bankruptcy to new heights. Henry Ford single-handedly created the modern automotive industry.


Is Larry Page the Visionary CEO Google Needs?


Now what about Google? Here’s what I said late last year when I declared Google Buzz tech’s biggest flop of 2010:

“With Google’s biggest attempt at social now a mere afterthought, nothing stands in Facebook’s way. The social network will eventually surpass its Silicon Valley rival both in terms of net worth and dominance of the web. Google will become the next Microsoft, profitable but unable to grow, and Facebook will become the next Google whose influence will be felt for years to come.”

Now, more than ever in its history, does Google need a visionary leader in the mold of Mark Zuckerberg or Steve Jobs. Eric Schmidt, while one of the best CEOs and managers of all time, isn’t a visionary. The vision has always been with the founders, especially with Larry Page, its President of Products and soon-to-be CEO.

Earlier this week, I answered a question on Quora on the potential impact of Google’s leadership shake-up. Here’s what I said:

“Larry Page is the visionary of the three. He’s been President of Product because he’s usually the one who comes up with the visionary product ideas and has ta plan to turn that idea into reality.

It was never quite clear who was in charge before, but now nobody can dispute that the buck stops with Larry Page. While he won’t be CEO officially until April (blame paperwork/bylaws/transition time/new nameplates), Page is already, in a sense, acting CEO.

How does this affect product development? It’s going to accelerate, based on Larry’s vision and Sergey’s hands-on approach. Sergey’s going to push more new projects off the ground while Larry is going to help define the overarching goals and strategies, while getting the right people in place.”

Google needs a clearer vision from the top. If it can’t find a way to limit the influence of Facebook soon, it will become the next Microsoft (or, even worse, the next Yahoo). It has an advantage most companies in its position don’t have, though: It still has its founders.

For Google’s sake, let’s hope Larry Page is the visionary CEO that the company so desperately needs.

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