Google v Apple – the gloves are off

Before the main event of Google TV taking on all-comers at the Google I/O developer conference on Thursday, there was an undercard bout of surprising ferocity between Android and Apple devices.

It was an amazing one-sided spectacle, with Android phones throwing frozen yoghurt in the faces of the iPhone and iPad. Blows of scorn and sarcasm rained down on a defenceless Apple from Vic Gundotra, vice president of developer platforms. It seemed all the more shocking considering the two Silicon Valley companies shared so much in common not so long ago that Eric Schmidt , Google chief executive, was a valued member of the Apple board.

Now it was like Apple versus IBM, but with the tables turned. Mr Gundotra recalled the famous 1984 Big Brother ad representing Apple’s bid to break the dominance of IBM with its Mac launch.

If Google had not created Android, he said, “we faced a Draconian future, a future where one man, one company, one device, one carrier would be our only choice. That’s a future we don’t want.”

That’s a huge exaggeration of course, there are plenty of other smartphone alternatives to Apple’s iPhone, but Android has been emerging as a major challenger.

The keynote speaker said 18 months after Android’s introduction there were now 60 devices made by 21 different manufacturers, in 48 countries, on 59 carriers, with more than 100,000 new phone activations a day, 50,000 apps in the Android Market, and seven releases of the operating system, culminating in 2.2, announced on Thursday and codenamed Froyo after the frozen yoghurt.

He went on to criticise the “lack of basic functionality like multi-tasking in the operating system” of the iPhone as he described a more sophisticated messaging service in 2.2 than Apple’s push notifications.

A portable Wi-Fi hotspot feature in a Froyo phone was demonstrated giving internet connectivity to an iPad, mocking iPad users’ need to sign up and pay AT&T to get a comparable connection.

An iPad was also used to show how Android phones had a much faster browsing performance in 2.2. An Android robot crawled around a swimming pool in a game simulation on the iPad, while one lapped it repeatedly in a swimming pool on an Android phone.

“I really wonder whether we’ll be able to get that in the App Store,” he joked.

Next came Google’s embrace of Adobe and Flash – a company and technology rejected by Steve Jobs on the iPhone and iPad.

“It turns out that on the internet, people use Flash,” said Mr Gundotra sarcastically, as he showed a blank orange Nickelodeon screen on the iPad and one playing cartoons on an Android phone with the new Adobe Flash Player 10.1 installed. “It’s much better to meet the needs of users, it’s much nicer than saying no,” he said.

Apple may have been surprised by the next demo as Mr Gundotra gave a sneak peek of a PC browser-based version of the Android Market that looks set to challenge iTunes and its App Store. Not only could users choose apps and download them over the air to their phones, rather than tethering them to a computer like iPods, but they could also download from a new and previously unannounced music category.

Mr Gundotra also announced Google had recently acquired Simplify Media, a company that sets up a server on computers to give users streaming access to their complete music libraries, such as iTunes, on their portable devices.

The Google executive was proving himself a supreme showman in his keynote and his piece de resistance was to announce that all 5,000 attendees would be given a free HTC Evo phone after his speech – the most wanted Android device of the summer.

“Thank you for supporting Android, thank you for voting on the side of openness and choice,” he concluded.

And with that, it is over to Apple and another supreme showman Steve Jobs, who is due to speak at its World Wide Developer Conference on June 7, when the new iPhone is expected to be unveiled.

Will Mr Jobs acknowledge an Android threat and be as cutting in his comments as Mr Gundotra? Will he show uncharacteristic munificence and give every developer a new iPhone?

Apples and yoghurt – the competition is getting healthier.