Two serious problems plague modern tech journalism. The first is that every tech writer is terrified of losing access to new products if they go more negative than standard advertising copy. The second is a problem of living in the present: It’s impossible to place all these new products and services in a historical context because, technologically speaking, history is still happening all around us. In his new book, Dogfight: How Apple and Google Went to War and Started a Revolution (Sarah Crichton Books, $27), Fred Vogelstein avoids the first problem: He doesn’t appear interested in currying the favor of either Apple or Google, as he portrays the executives of both companies as narcissistic, venal, backstabbing jerks.
Here’s the situation: A few decades ago, Steve Jobs delivered a product that changed computers for the better. With Macintosh, he made computers easier to use, friendlier, and way more fun. But Jobs’s insistence on controlling both the software and the hardware caused him to lose the majority of the home-computing market to Bill Gates’s Windows operating system, which could be installed on a panoply of devices, from cheap rigs to luxury setups. Now Apple may be in the process of similarly losing its control over the mobile market to Google’s Android mobile operating system, which shares Microsoft’s affordable versatility and market oversaturation.
Vogelstein showcases his storytelling skill by wisely beginning Dogfight with Jobs’s drama-fraught introduction of the iPhone to the media. The iPhone that Jobs unveiled was a broken thing that could perform just enough of certain tasks to awe the press. Vogelstein explains the device Jobs showed off “could play a section of a song or a video, but it couldn’t play an entire clip without crashing. It worked fine if you sent an e-mail and then surfed the web. If you did those things in reverse, however, it did not.” But nobody had ever seen precisely that technology used in precisely that way before, and Apple, yet again, soon had a best-selling product that was reinventing an industry.
Their competitor in the nascent touch-screen smartphone market was previously one of their closest allies. Google and Apple shared high-ranking executives, and their services and hardware lived in a state of harmonic symbiosis. But once Android phones started selling, the simmering resentment between the two companies, as Vogelstein tells it, quickly descended to the level of a schoolyard spat. (“These [Google] guys are lying to me, and I am not going to take it anymore,” Jobs pouted, calling one Googler a “big, arrogant fuck.”)
Vogelstein walks you through the various lawsuits, technological advances, and personal insults in the Android-versus-Apple drama, explaining all the details in plain English and dropping small morsels of gossip every few paragraphs to keep the pages turning briskly. But the book doesn’t end. Vogelstein is frank about who he believes the ultimate winner will be, but that’s hardly a satisfying conclusion. Despite all the blustery combat imagery Vogelstein uses to fancy up his narrative, the lack of a climactic resolution tosses the story back into perspective: Ultimately, Dogfight is about two unfathomably profitable corporations tossing barbs at each other from the safety of their ergonomic office chairs.