Early in my reporting for Fortune’s annual survey of the World’s Most Admired Companies, it became apparent that Apple and Google would again rank near or at the top of the list. As it happened, they ended up as number 1 and 2 respectively. (Technology companies landed four spots in the top 10, with Amazon.com at number 7, and Microsoft grabbing the 9th spot.)
As a business reporter, I’ve kept tabs on Apple and Google this year. And as a web journalist, I spend most of my day signed into Gmail on an iMac. So I get why they’re good. But I don’t have a vote in this survey. However, 4,100 directors, and industry analysts do, and they selected Apple and Google as the two companies that they admired most among all the others in the world.
So it’s worth asking: what are these two doing so right?
Let’s start with Google. It’s earned its web domination. Sure, Google has hit regulatory speed bumps in Europe for downloading private Wi-Fi data, and governments on that side of the Atlantic have since watched the company more cautiously. But not only is Google still the dominant global search engine it often uses that position for good.
For example, when the Egyptian government blocked Twitter during the recent protests, Google created a program to translate voicemails into tweets. It’s hard to think of another company with the manpower and know-how to create a functional cloud-based application of that scale in an instant.
Also, the tech ecosystem depends on Google to shine. At the 2011 Consumer Electronics Show, tablets that would ultimately run Honeycomb, the newest version of Google’s Android mobile OS, had to make do with an older, less tabletized version of Android. They fell flat. Now that Honeycomb is out, they run like a dream.
But that episode does illustrate Google’s dependence on hardware makers, a problem our top company, Apple, doesn’t have.
Customers weren’t happy when Apple had grip-related signal problems with its iPhone 4 this year, but glitches haven’t shaken the obsession many have with the company’s products.
When Apple added a Verizon iPhone, they sold out of 100,000 pre-ordered units within two hours. More recently, Apple’s iPad 2 release has followers salivating over the sleeker, faster model, just over a year after the original’s debut.
The companies have become tech super powers in different ways. Apple maintains complete control over its products from the OS upwards. Google spreads horizontally. It web-oriented and open. But both are scary good at releasing high quality products consumers love.
Apple does have one big advantage that might explain why it beats Google out in a list where companies vote on each other. That’s leadership. Not necessarily the quality of leadership, but the charisma of the leader.
Since 2001, Google has had Eric Schmidt at the helm, and he’s guided the company to greatness, but publicly made some embarrassing comments. He’s changing roles soon—as of April, co-founder Larry Page will take over as CEO. But Google’s CEO will still, fundamentally, be a brilliant nerd.
Apple’s CEO Steve Jobs, on the other hand, is a brilliant nerd with charisma. Jobs’s taking medical leave in January has had many people concerned about the future of the company, which is why his appearance at the iPad 2 release was a big deal for Apple, putting fanboys and investors at ease, at least for now.
Certainly, both Apple and Google have told incredible stories thus far. Regardless of where they go next, they make killer products and applications that have redefined the way that many of us consume information. They predict what our tech future will look like, and then deliver it, repeatedly. Giving people what they want, before they have to ask for it? Well, that’s a trait to be admired.
Shelley DuBois is a reporter for Fortune, a sister company of TIME.