Google's mobile move: awe-inspiring and terrifying

Google's announcement on Monday of a mobile development platform that could radically alter the wireless market is yet another example of the lengths the company will go to keep its advertising business growing at a jaw-dropping rate.

It is also another awe-inspiring -- or terrifying, depending on one's perspective -- display of the engineering and business resources Google can unleash and of the power it has to influence, disrupt and rearrange markets.

It did it, originally, in the search engine market, of course, by building a better mousetrap at a time when finding information on the Web was a thoroughly unsatisfying experience because the incumbents for years had provided substandard services.

Along the way, it found a way to generate loads of advertising revenue, creating the empire that has given it the financial might to march into new markets and, while not always succeeding, at least spooking the existing players.

For example, in 2004, Gmail shook up the stale Webmail market, rousing complacent players like Microsoft and Yahoo and forcing them to innovate again in order to meet Google's challenge.

Likewise, it has gone, with various degrees of success, into instant messaging, photo management, radio, print and TV advertising, enterprise search, Web analytics and hosted business applications.

Now it has set its sights on the mobile market, where until now it has been an outsider with, at best, a peripheral role.

It's mighty ambitious of Google to waltz in and attempt to change basic, ingrained rules in a notoriously cutthroat market with powerful and long-established gatekeepers that are intensely protective of their own interests.

"What we have here is Google trying to move the whole mobile Internet forward through this alliance," said industry analyst Greg Sterling of Sterling Market Intelligence.

In a nutshell, Google announced a free, open-source application development platform called Android for mobile devices with the intention of eclipsing existing operating systems from Microsoft, Symbian, Palm and others.

In typical Google fashion, the move seems thought through with chess-like thoroughness.

"It's significant that they didn't build an actual Google phone" said Gartner analyst Ken Dulaney, referring to rumors to that effect. Such a move would have angered many potential partners. "That would have been a disaster."

Android will have a complete set of components, including a Linux-based operating system, middleware stack, customizable user interface and applications.

Google envisions that with Android, developers will flood the mobile market with new applications and online services that can be written once and deployed in many phones, something that, as Google sees it, the current mobile technical fragmentation prevents.

The goal: to radically improve the creation, delivery and provision of mobile online services and applications, in the hopes that as people find the experience more satisfying, their mobile Web and Internet usage will balloon, along with online ad revenue.

Many questions remain unanswered about this latest foray, and the accomplishment of its grand vision is far from assured, but Google could effect significant change in how wireless carriers, handset makers and mobile application developers do business.

"What makes it real and powerful is the credibility of all these partners they have gathered," Sterling said. "It means that this has got buy-in in a very powerful way from the get-go."

Google's Open Handset Alliance is launching with 33 partners on board, including T-Mobile, HTC, Qualcomm, Motorola, Broadcom, eBay, China Mobile, Intel, LG Electronics, NTT DoCoMo, Nvidia, Samsung, Sprint Nextel, Telecom Italia, Telefonica, Texas Instruments and Wind River.

Of course, victory is far from secure.

For starters, not everyone is on board. Apple, Nokia, AT&T and Verizon are noticeably absent from the partners' list. Also, while the vision looks shiny at a conceptual level, many technical details remain undisclosed.

"We have a bit of a wait and see until we see what the platform will look like next week," said Van Baker, a Garner analyst. "We're operating in the dark. We're hearing lots of good intentions but it remains to be seen what they will actually deliver."

Google promises more details will be provided next week when it releases the Android software development kit, which will be free to use under the Apache V2 license.

Baker is particularly interested in the browser component of Android, which Google officials Monday described as full-featured and based on HTML, thus able to replicate a PC experience on a mobile phone.

That is a big claim, and if that browser in fact functions in that manner, Android's effect on the market will likely be significant, as the only thing that would approach this claim in the market today is the iPhone's Safari, Baker said.

"I confess to being skeptical [about the browser description] but if they can deliver on that, it could be very compelling," Baker said.

Another potential pitfall is the freedom of the open-source license, which gives developers, handset makers and carriers a lot of leeway to add proprietary extensions and modifications, which could result in an aggravation of the problem that Google is trying to solve: technical fragmentation.

"This could lead to further fragmentation in the market because the license allows any licensee to use whatever pieces [of the platform] they want and ignore whatever pieces or parts they want," Baker said.

Whether Android will have its desired effect will become clear once phones and applications built on it start appearing in the second half of 2008. At the time, cell phone subscribers will cast the most important votes in this contest.

Certainly, the lack of support at this point from AT&T and Verizon is notable, if not surprising, Baker said. Big carriers like Verizon and AT&T are comfortable with the significant control they exert currently over the applications and services available to their subscribers.

"This could loosen that [grip] up a bit," Baker said.

Sterling shares a similar view. "Android represents a way into mobile for a lot of parties that currently don't have a way in. It represents a way around the walled garden of the U.S. carriers," Sterling said.

Apple, which has been traditionally a Google ally, is likely not enthused about Android, which could make it easier for competitors to match, or at least approach, the iPhone's innovations.

Ultimately, what is propelling Google in this effort is its core advertising business, which the company recognizes it must extend to the mobile market.

A small market today, mobile advertising is expected to attain a significant size in coming years. According to Opus Research, mobile advertising spending in North America and Western Europe will reach a combined $5.08 billion by 2012, up from an estimated $106.8 million at the end of this year. This represents a compound annual growth rate of 116%.

Opus Research, which released the forecast last week, said that improving the mobile user experience will prompt more people to spend more time using the Internet via their cell phones. This in turn will fuel ad revenue growth.

In the end, independently of what ends up happening, Google's entry into the mobile market is a welcome development, Dulaney said.

"We need powerful players from the 'wired' Internet market to get into the mobile space to break up the tight control carriers have had on content," Dulaney said. "So far, carriers have controlled all the content and they've been bad at it. Innovation has been stifled."

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