Apple 2.0

Covering the business that Steve Jobs built

Google unveils an ecosystem designed to rival Apple's

June 27, 2012: 5:53 PM ET

But can the combination of Jelly Bean, Play, the Nexus 7 and the Q catch up to iTunes?

Google Glass-wearing skydivers getting ready to jump. Photo: The Verge

FORTUNE -- In a jam-packed keynote that included a long list of significant software announcements, a box full of free hardware and a live-streamed skydive onto the roof of Moscone West, Google (GOOG) unveiled its strongest challenge yet to Apple's (AAPL) computing and entertainment ecosystem.

The highlights of the two hour-plus presentation:

  • Google Play, a rebranding of Android Market in which 600,000 apps have been enhanced with movies, TV shows, books and magazines to compete with Apple's iTunes.
  • The Nexus Q, a $299 bowling ball-shaped media player that plugs into a TV, connects wirelessly to speakers and serves as a gateway to the content on Google Play. Can be controlled party-style by several Android devices simultaneously.
  • Nexus 7, a 7-inch $199 tablet built for Google by Asus that looks (and is priced) more like the Amazon (AMZN) Kindle Fire than an Apple iPad. Comes with Google Chrome built-in.
  • Jelly Bean (A.K.A. Android 4.1) enhanced with Siri-like voice controls and dictation, an improved photo-sharing feature called Google Beam, improved search and navigation, and a bottom-up performance upgrade called Project Butter.
  • Google Glass, the company's futuristic computer-in-an-eyeglass-frame, which will be available for sale to developers in early 2013 for $1,500.

The Nexus Q

The biggest crowd pleaser: The announcement that all 6,000 attendees will be getting a free Nexus Galaxy phone, a Nexus 7 tablet and a Nexus Q media player.

The dramatic highlight: The live-streamed video of Google Glass-wearing stuntmen performing a variety of death-defying feats: skydivers jumping out of a passing blimp to land on the roof of the Moscone West; cyclists leaping from building to building via bicycle ramps; mountain climbers rappelling down the side of the conference center.

Almost lost in the hoopla is the fact that except for its lead in Android phone sales, Google is playing catch-up on almost every front. Google Play and the Nexus Q, in particular, are coming in late. Microsoft (MSFT) has a huge installed base of multi-media players in its XBox 360 and Apple has a decade-long head start with iTunes.

Analysts wasted no time comparing Google's offerings to Apple's:

"In our view," wrote Topeka's Brian White in a quick note to clients, "Apple's ecosystem still remains the best in the mobile device world with over 650,000 apps in total and 225,000 apps that are native to the iPad. This compares to 600,000 apps in total for Google and an insignificant amount that are native for tablets. Apple already has 400 million accounts on the App Store with more than 30 billion App downloads, while 125 million users have registered for iCloud."

From Forrester's James McQuivey: "Learning a lesson from Amazon, Google can see that the only way to beat the premium-worthy iPad is to go for the millions of customers who are ready for smaller and cheaper tablets and then grow those customers into more Android powered devices and, more importantly, Google-powered services like Google Play and whatever paid video experience YouTube will likely create. That range of services will be the secret to stitching together this rag-tag fleet of Android gadgets into a platform that can compete with Apple for minutes of user's attention rather than premium device dollars."

"The $199 tablet price point as well as improved content availability could draw some consumers to the Android ecosystem," wrote ISI's Brian Marshall. "We believe GOOG is making meaningful improvements to its ecosystem/Android and that the $199 price point could help GOOG gain some traction in tablets. However, we believe AAPL remains well ahead and are comfortable with our iPad estimates (e.g., 64mil in CY12, 80mil in CY13)."

Sterne Agee's Shaw Wu: "We find [the Nexus 7's] $199 price point aggressive, on par with Kindle Fire, and will likely compete most against AMZN, MSFT, RIMM, HPQ, and unfortunately its Android partners including Samsung, DELL, HTC, Lenovo, Acer, etc. AAPL could see competitive pressure as well but we believe likely least impacted given its unique structural and strategic advantages."

Ovum's Jan Dawson:  "The Nexus Q home media device is on paper very similar to the Apple TV launched in 2007 - $299 for a device that streams content from the cloud and attaches to a TV and other home media devices. The problem is that the current Apple TV sells for $99 and does far more, including mirroring smartphone and tablet screens. Google's decision to manufacturer the device in the US may turn out to be a self-defeating PR move, given that it's the most logical reason for the inflated $299 price point. Even the Apple TV, of course, doesn't sell very well, so there's little hope for Google's latest venture into the home entertainment space at three times the price."

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Philip Elmer-Dewitt
Philip Elmer-DeWitt
Editor, Apple 2.0, Fortune

Philip Elmer-DeWitt has been following Apple since 1982, first for Time Magazine, and now on the Web for Fortune.com.

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