As usual, over the last few weeks I’ve been following various IT stories in both the mainstream media, and IT press and since the beginning of the year I’ve been beginning to better understand the strategy, and likely success, of both Apple and Google. It made me wonder if the future of consumer devices and systems will boil down to a choice between Google and Apple products.

It’s quite a scary thought because despite the clear motives behind the companies respective strategies, the general public seem quite happy to ignore the potential implications as long as what they deliver is ‘cool’ and/or ‘free’, and ignoring those implications now sells us down the river later. Let’s take a brief look why.

I’ll start by taking a detour into the world of WALL.E – which if you haven’t seen it I recommend. WALL.E is an animated movie from the lands of Disney Pixar, and apart from the usual main characters you have a mega corporation called Buy n Large. Buy n Large is so big there are no other corporations. It’s Buy n Large or nothing, for your shopping, electrics, health care and so on. There is no consumer choice, no opportunity to ‘take your business elsewhere, so if you don’t like Buy n Large, tough. While I’m not suggesting this will be Apple or Google in the near future, it’s this kind of domination both companies want in their respective fields.

Contrary to popular perception, Google is not an IT company. It’s an advertising company, with a well known motto of ‘Do No Evil’. Of course, they don’t define what precisely they mean by evil, and perhaps a better motto would be ‘Sell more adverts’ because that is exactly what everything they do is about. All of the free applications and services are designed to flow more and more information about you to Googles servers, which then sift through it all looking for the useful nuggets which will allow it to target adverts at you in a more effective way. While many of the applications and services are free, they do have a cost – that of allowing a single entity to maintain huge swathes of personal and private information, to be used as Google sees fit. The whole point of providing these applications and services for free is that Google want people to use them, and by making them so easy to use, and quite cool, the tendency is for people to ignore the intangible cost and shrug their shoulders because the services and applications resolve more immediate and tangible problems.

I wonder how different the attitude would be if it was the government collecting browsing histories, search histories, and e-mail conversations, while tracking locations, all as a matter of course…..

Apple take a different path which leads to a different kind of intangible cost. Apple make some great products – and make no mistake they charge for them too. From Macs through to phones, including the new iPad, the Apple user experience is polished and refined, slick and easy to use – as you would expect for devices at a premium price point. Where Apple really succeed though, apart from persuading people to part with significant wedges of cash, is in the control they exert over the platform. The Apple App Store is rightly lauded as a great way to deliver applications to devices – a central point for software shopping, akin to Wal*Mart in the US. The flip side of this is that the only applications you see are the ones Apple authorise. I cannot make write my own iPhone application, and give it to my friends and family to run on their iPhones, unless I get it approved by Apple – and that is key, Apple control the content.

There’s a further catch when it comes to protected content – media which uses Apples DRM technology can only be played on Apple devices. iTunes users might be familiar with this as it was a common complaint when the iTunes store was first introduced, with Apple choosing to use their own proprietary DRM system which locked out users of non-Apple devices from playing music they had legally purchased via iTunes. The same thing appears to be the case with the new iBooks store for the iPad. While the actual format is an open standard, the DRM used is Apples own, which remains unlicensed by anyone else, either due to license terms or costs, or Apples refusal to license it. Either way, the upshot is that it’s unlikely that you’ll be able to read ebooks purchased via the iBooks store on anything but an Apple device.

Therefore, with Apple the cost of use is not only the actual physical money transfer, but the proprietary lock in to Apple devices and the restriction of content to that which Apple approve. Again, the same question applies – if this was a government mandating only approved applications and content you could only play on government issue devices, I suspect there would be a different attitude to giving up control of what you can do, and what you can play.

Of course right now the counter argument is that we have a choice as consumers – we can choose not to give up all our data to Google, and we can choose not to be locked in to Apples world. That’s today’s world though, and my question was about the future. The concern is that as more and more people make the choice to give their information or give up their control, in favour of free applications or cool devices, the opportunity for other providers diminishes, the competitive landscape shrinks, and the choices for those of us who have concerns over privacy and control become fewer and more expensive. What choices will remain once the competition has been made a side show?

If it comes down to it, who would you choose, the devil or the deep blue sea?