A design arms race: Apple & Google stock up

As the infrastructure of digital technology — the chips, network connections, computing — becomes ever cheaper, they’re becoming commodities, and the value of tech products is shifting to the design and the user experience. That’s the underlying thesis for why Gigaom launched its annual experience design conference Roadmap four years ago, the latest of which will take place in November in San Francisco.

And this shifting landscape is also why the two tech giants that arguably most dictate the future of digital technology — Apple and Google — have been stocking up heavily on designers, launching design-led products and aggressively charging head with new design-focused innovations. Of course Apple has long been a design leader, with the original design-thinker Steve Jobs at the helm for so long, but Google has spent the last several years investing in design and giving Apple a run for its money.

Apple Watch. Photo by Tom Krazit/Gigaom

Apple Watch. Photo by Tom Krazit/Gigaom

That Google is willing to spend heavily on design as a way to get ahead was crystal clear in Fast Company’s recent in-depth profile of Nest founder and CEO Tony Fadell, who sold his company to Google earlier this year for $3.2 billion. Fadell, who is often compared to Steve Jobs and worked closely with Jobs at Apple, said in the interview that with the acquisition, Nest brought 100 former Apple employees with it into Google. And Kleiner Perkins partner and Nest investor Randy Komisar said that “Google bought the Apple genome, and for relatively cheap.” That genome at its heart is about design and design thinking.

While Google has been building its Apple-style design chops, Apple has been flexing its design muscle with the launch of its potentially disruptive Apple Watch, which features entirely new UI innovations. Designer Yves Behar, who will be speaking at Roadmap, commented to Businessweek about the watch: “Everything Apple has done in the last six years has been an evolution of their design language. If you look at watch companies, they do exactly the same thing: They own a visual style, and they stay with it for a hundred years. It doesn’t mean I find the watch exciting—I find it right.”

Apple might even be taking a cue from Google in some aspects of design. Apple just announced its iPhone 6 Plus, an iPhone with a considerably large screen, while Google has been enabling Android phones with large screens for some time now.

There’s no sign that this design arms race will come to an end. Google launched its Material Design language earlier this year at Google I/O and will now implement this UI language across its mobile and web products (at Roadmap, you’ll also hear from Google’s VP Design, Android, Matias Duarte). But the company with the most well-stocked design assets could very well win.