11/02/2011 09:16 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Gmail App For iPhone: A Google Mistake?

One of the biggest advantages of owning a Nintendo (or Super Nintendo, or N64) when I was growing up was Super Mario Brothers. Mario and Luigi, the stars of the best run-and-jump games of all time, were only available for Nintendo, and it was a huge selling point for buying the gaming platforms. If you owned a PlayStation, a Genesis, a Dreamcast or whatever, you were out of luck: You could play pale imitations of Mario games, but you'd never know the unique exaltation of rescuing Princess Peach Toadstool.

Checking your Gmail on an Android phone carries with it a similar sense of superiority. For all the disagreements between Fandroids and the Apple partisans, there should be no dispute that the native Gmail for any Android phone is far, far better than however you're checking your Gmail on an iPhone. It is one of the great selling points of Android devices over iPhones: The ability to star conversations, the real-time push notifications, the feeling that the inbox was truly integrated to the phone. If you were only buying a smartphone to check Gmail and surf the web, you would be crazy not to get an Android phone that fit your specs.

Which is why it is so surprising that Google is apparently going to release a Gmail app for the iPhone. If the reports from well-connected tech reporter MG Siegler are true, an app for Gmail (not a shortcut to a website, but an iOS app) will be out as soon as it is approved by Apple.

Why is Google doing this? Why, after three and a half years of ignoring the App Store, and after surpassing iOS with their own mobile operating system, would Google relent and give up one of its great, tangible, unarguable advantages over Apple's iPhone? You're in a vicious, ugly, man-on-man tussle with Apple, trying to win over every customer you can to your operating system. Apple doesn't have a weapon in this fight, and you're going to let them borrow your knife?

It doesn't compute. Frankly, the Google guys who work on Gmail are doing little more than stealing away consumers from the Google guys who work on Android by making the Android competition seem more attractive. Unless they're serving up their own ads within the Gmail app (not likely), this seems like a huge win for Apple (they finally get Gmail!) and a huge head-scratcher for Google (it's now mildly more convenient to check your Google mail for your web users on your competitor's handsets ... !).

The only financial reason why Google would release a standalone Gmail app for iOS -- besides pure altruism -- is the fear that its webmail users will flee to other services without one. And with Gmail adoption rates rising incredibly quickly, and given the pain involved in switching years of messages and contacts over to Yahoo or Hotmail, that does not seem like a worry for the G-men.

The app will be free; the app is most likely not going to serve advertisements. What is the endgame here for Google: Brand exposure?

Maybe Google really does care that much about its email users, enough to cut off its foot to save its leg. Maybe a development chief looked up at the "Don't Be Evil" slogan on the cafeteria wall and, forgetting about the public slap-fest over the Google Voice app from a couple years back, gave the go-ahead for an app for Gmail.

Maybe Google is conceding that some of its users will never try Android and wants to make sure that those users have the best Gmail experience possible on iOS.

But that's how an idyllic corporation works, not a competitive one. Lending your enemy weapons during war is a generally poor military strategy. If the Gmail app is indeed coming to the iPhone, then it is terrific news for Apple and more fully completes their app and OS ecosystem; for Google -- well, at least they didn't do evil.