The Wireless Web

Stephen DeAngelis

November 06, 2007

Google just announced that it is leading an effort to develop technologies that will turn celluar telephones into powerful mobile computers that will be connected to Web anytime and anywhere [“Google Enters the Wireless World,” by Miguel Helft and John Markoff, New York Times, 5 November 2007].

“The personal computer is climbing off its desktop perch and hopping into the pockets of millions of people. The resulting merger of computing and communications is likely to revolutionize the telecommunications industry as thoroughly as the PC changed the computing world in the early 1980s. Google, which wants to be as central to the coming wireless Web as it is to today’s PC-dominated Internet, announced … that it was leading a broad industry effort to develop new software technologies aimed at turning cellphones into powerful mobile computers.”

The primary user purpose of new computer phones will be connectivity not productivity, which seems to be a natural next step for Web 2.0 applications.

“If successful, the effort will usher in new mobile devices that as the iPhone has done, will make it easier to use the Internet on the go. The phones, which would run on software that Google would give away to phone makers, could be cheaper and easier to customize. And by giving outside software developers full access to a Google-powered phone’s functions, the alliance members hope for a proliferation of new PC-style programs and services, like social networking and video sharing.”

Google, of course, is not going to give its software away as an act of altruism. Its bottom line is higher profits — which means more ads on more platforms.

“With the move, Google is trying to alter the dynamics of yet another industry. It is already using its deep pockets and innovative technology to shake up television, book publishing, computer software and advertising.”

Helft and Markoff indicate that Google has no plans to build a “Google Phone”; rather it is concentrating on working with an impressive group of hardware providers to bring phones with Google software to market.

“[Google] has signed up powerful partners to develop and market the phones, including handset makers like Motorola and Samsung, carriers like T-Mobile, Sprint and China Mobile and semiconductor companies like Qualcomm and Intel. The group, the Open Handset Alliance, expects to start selling the Google-powered phones in the second half of next year.”

Google is counting on its Internet clout to convince people to buy phones containing its software. Helft and Markoff not that in order to make a dent in the cell phone sector, Google will have to muscle aside players like Microsoft, Palm, and Research in Motion (famous for it Blackberry offering). Not all analysts are convinced Google will have the impact it expects.

“‘I’m not convinced,’ said Chetan Sharma, a technology consultant who tracks the wireless data industry. ‘It’s a pretty impressive list of people in the group, but it takes a long time to get things into the ecosystem.’ However, the strength of Google’s brand with consumers, as well as the open-source strategy that will make the phone software freely available and customizable, make it difficult to discount Google’s potential impact.”

Google is going to have to convince consumers who have appreciated limited advertising on their small phones that increased performance and flexibility is worth getting inundated with ads.

“The initiative is an ambitious push to take its overwhelming dominance of advertising on PC screens onto wireless devices. The company has been frustrated at the limited availability of its services on mobile phones, whose features and software are largely controlled by carriers and handset makers. By courting programmers, Google hopes to give the phones abilities that users demand and carriers find difficult to resist. The idea is that just as spreadsheets, word processors, video games and other software tools turned the personal computer into an everyday appliance, the emergence of new mobile applications can spur wider adoption of so-called smartphones. More use of the Web, whether on PCs or on phones, benefits Google because its advertising systems have such broad reach. Software developers ‘will build applications that do amazing things on the Internet and on mobile phones as well,’ Eric E. Schmidt, Google’s chief executive, said at a news conference.'”

Of course smart phones would be even more useful if the U.S. had a faster and more widely available wi-fi system. One of the hits on the iPhone is that its connectivity through AT&T remains irritatingly slow. Helft and Markoff note that the Open Handset Alliance does include some carriers, but they are mostly international companies. AT&T and Verizon, that account for 52 percent of the U.S. market are not part of the Alliance. Smart phones account for a small portion of the cell phone market, but Google would like to see that change. In fact, according to Helft and Markoff, Google hopes that the availability of new and better software will spur the invention of new devices they call “Mids” that are halfway between a cell phone and a laptop. For most business people, access to email and phone calls remains their lifeblood with Internet access being a sometimes nice to have feature. The new Google phone will like appeal first to younger users who are addicted to social networking. Since they represent the future, however, it is clear that Google is betting on the future.