Why Google's acquisition of Firebase could be bigger than developers realize

Shane Schick

Instead of the usual "iOS vs. Android" research reports, wouldn't it be a bit more interesting--and accurate--if analyst firms described the race for app developer loyalty as one between a proprietary and open approach? If nothing else, it would help explain why Google recently bought Firebase.

As this article goes live, Google will be formally welcoming Firebase on stage at an event to discuss its Google Cloud Platform in San Francisco, though the acquisition may, in fact, have taken place even earlier. Firebase describes itself as a firm founded on an idea that "just might work" to easily enable the creation of mobile apps that work not only via an Internet-connected smartphone but offline, or even as a Web app. It's not Android-only; there are plenty of iOS developers that use it as well.

This kind of backend-as-a-service play reminds me a lot of what Facebook did a while back with its acquisition of Parse: gain the database savvy necessary to create the kind of cloud-based offering that developers will increasingly count on. Firebase essentially fosters the creation of what some experts call "real-time" apps: in other words, to set up a mobile experience that may start online, then move to a mobile app, then continue offline, or some other combination of the three.

"With Firebase, developers are able to easily sync data across web and mobile apps without having to manage connections or write complex sync logic," Google Director of Product Development Greg DeMichillie wrote in a blog post. Of course, Google has the resources to develop that kind of thing internally, but Firebase already has more than 110,000 developer customers. Even if there's overlap with those already using Google Cloud Platform, there are bound to be new iOS app specialists that will now be a part of its community. 

Notwithstanding the recent launches of the Nexus 6, Google is probably better off not focusing on trying to out-Apple with its own hardware and instead build the kind of public cloud infrastructure that will make it more of a de-facto destination for developers that want to create innovative apps that run on both iOS and Android. If, as both Firebase and Google have said--that Firebase will not disappear but just improve--it could offer Google an interesting competitive advantage not only against Apple but platform-as-a-service giants such as Amazon and Microsoft. 

In a way, Firebase could also help Google address a real consumer complaint, which is the difference between what works on one device of OS to the next. Developers and vendors may have fierce loyalties to iOS, Android or one of the smaller platforms, but there are plenty of everyday smartphone users that don't want to hear about the platform wars. They just want to do things with their mobile device, whether it's in a browser or accessed via an icon on their home screen. Although it was Google that actually spent the money on Firebase, its rivals may soon want to think about how they can help developers and consumers more quickly get their mobile experiences in sync.--Shane