After a long embittered patent battle that Apple had waged against Google’s Android OEMs alleging that Android partners infringe on key Apple patents, it looks like Google and Apple are beginning to mend the rift. The two companies were once close allies with Google’s Dr. Eric Schmidt sitting on Apple’s board. And when the iPhone debuted in 2007, Steve Jobs spoke warmingly of Google’s services and the partnership with Apple to deliver Google Maps, YouTube, email, and search. But that was the stuff that legends are made of, and history was not kind. Schmidt’s dual role as Google executive and Apple director posed a huge conflict and the two companies drifted apart.
However, Google’s latest Calico biotechnology startup could be a key in mending the relationship between the two heavyweight Silicon Valley technology giants. The key may be seen in Arthur D. Levinson, chariman of both Apple’s and Genentech’s board. The latter company, part of Swiss pharmaceutical company Roche’s empire, gives Levinson the pedigree to run Calico as Google tries to solve the fountain of youth.
Calico is dedicated to researching health and aging. And though that sounds like a far-fetched endeavor for Google, a company that has built a name for itself on search, it may make sense.
Founded in 1998 as a scrappy startup, Google itself is aging and so are its users. Likely, the company wants to keep its users alive so more eyes are would be glued to Google’s search results and more fingers pressing up against Android’s many touchscreens.
“Illness and aging affect all our families. With some longer term, moonshot thinking around healthcare and biotechnology, I believe we can improve millions of lives,” Google CEO Larry Page said in statement printed in Google’s press release. “It’s impossible to imagine anyone better than Art—one of the leading scientists, entrepreneurs and CEOs of our generation—to take this new venture forward.”
Surprisingly, Jobs’ successor and Apple CEO Tim Cook is supportive of Levinson joining Google in this new role.
“For too many of our friends and family, life has been cut short or the quality of their life is too often lacking,” the Apple head said. “Art is one of the crazy ones who thinks it doesn’t have to be this way. There is no one better suited to lead this mission and I am excited to see the results.”
Though in recruiting Art Levinson, the downsides are just as big as the upside. If Levinson could mend the Google-Apple relationship, his role in serving as head of Google-owned Calico as well as directors on Genentech’s and Apple’s board could potentially cause the same conflicts as Schmidt’s role did some years ago. The fallout could be big.
Calico could serve as the next frontier in mobility for Google, an area that Apple itself is keenly keeping an eye on. With a firm footprint in the biotechnology space, Levinson could open the doors for Google to enter the wearable computing space in a meaningful way with technologies that could monitor and assess health of the wearer. Implanted, embedded, worn, or ingested, these technologies could open up pathways for more connectivity as the smartphone market is beginning to plateau and new adoption slows.
And with Levinson, there is definitely some Silicon Valley inbreeding happening. The man whose name is most closely associated with Genentech was once, like Schmidt, serving as a director on Apple’s board and Google’s board. He had resigned from serving on Google’s board in 2009 as tension with Schmidt was mounting. Could Levinson’s return to Google via Calico be his exit strategy out of Apple’s board?
Given Tim Cook’s rare endorsement of Calico doesn’t mean that Apple itself isn’t considering a similar strategy. The company has been ramping up its own endeavors into the wearable space with the rumored iWatch smartwatch by hiring its own staff of fitness and sensor experts. Though Apple’s hire seems more concentrated into commercialized product research, Google’s more research-oriented approach could give it broader results to tackle the aging markets with if it could find partner companies to commercialize its findings, whatever those may be. We’re beginning to see Apple narrow down its focus into products with wearables while Google may be broadening its approach.
Whether the newfound affection that Google and Apple are showing each other through Levinson’s Calico will translate into a better relationship between Apple, Google, iPhone, Android, iOS, and other products is yet to be seen.