While my assertion that Google has been slow to “mobile first” may seem very odd given that Google developed the most popular smartphone operating system, I see that as a whole, Google has maintained a PC-centric view. That is to say, although the Android group is very mobile focused, it seems that not every division shares this view and this includes many of the strategically important ones. In many key areas, Google has failed to embrace the priorities and mentalities that are required to succeed in mobile.
One very evident example is the lack of focus on power efficiency. In a recent post by Google software engineer, Peter Kasting, Google mentions its commitment to make its Chrome browser more energy efficient. Kasting in particular mentions Chrome’s power efficiency on the Mac, but that is only because Safari on the Mac is extremely well optimised for battery life. Google’s lack of attention to power efficiency has also been evident on Windows.
This is very much in contrast to Apple which has been making power consumption a huge priority ever since 2005 when Steve Jobs announced their switch to Intel processors. Recent MacOS X and Safari updates have also frequently focused on improvements in energy efficiency. It is very obvious that the synergy with iOS development and the iPod before that has been a major factor in driving the Mac to power efficiency. In this sense, one can argue that the whole company, including the Mac division, shares the same mentality towards energy efficient design and optimizations. This apparently has not been the case with Google.
I suspect that inside Google, the groups that develop software for servers, the groups that develop for desktop application or web applications, and the groups that develop for Android are not talking to each other. The power-saving techniques developed for Android are not being transferred to their desktop applications. In fact, one observation that stands out in Android app development is how long it took for Chrome to be ported to Android in a version that did not suck (discussed here for example, among numerous other places, and also in my personal experience), which clearly shows that they had trouble developing Chrome for less powerful devices.
If this truly is the case, then Google can only be as strong as the sum of its parts. Synergy between Google’s divisions can only happen at the product level (lock-in etc.) and not at the development level.
Maybe given that Google’s real strength lies in its cloud business, this doesn’t really matter. If Google wishes to keep all the intelligence in the cloud and to keep computing on the client-side to a minimum, then all they have to do is keep improving their browser (which interestingly they haven’t been very successful at on mobile). They don’t really have to invest in creating the very best client software because their cloud services can make up for it (or at least that’s their plan).
If however the tides change and for some reason, computing on the client side becomes important (maybe due to increased awareness of privacy issues for example), I would be rather pessimistic of the transfer of knowledge between Google’s AI experts and their mobile development experts. I don’t think they would be able to create very good client software (maybe Chrome for Android quality).
Of course, in Apple’s case, it is the other way around right now. Apple is strongest when the device teams and the software and services teams work together and create synergies. It all depends on how technology and customer expectations evolve.