Google mobilises for crowds on clouds

The largest internet search company may be a newcomer to the mobile market, but its ambition is nothing less than becoming king of this domain.

A Google Inc. Nexus One touch-screen mobile phone sits on display for the media at Google headquarters in Mountain View, California, U.S., on Tuesday, Jan. 5, 2010. Google Inc., aiming to take on Apple Inc.'s iPhone and defend its dominance in Internet search, introduced a touch-screen mobile phone called Nexus One that runs on its own Android operating system. Photographer: Kim White/Bloomberg
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It is hard to believe that three years ago, the mobile world was a speck in the acquisitive eye of Google. A lot has changed since then. The search engine and online advertising giant has begun to take mobile extremely seriously, announcing yesterday that it has elected to adopt a "mobile first" rule for all of its upcoming projects.

But can Google emerge as the market leader in the mobile field? The industry is already crowded with players such as Apple, Research In Motion, Microsoft and Sony, each company equipped with its own walled-off mobile ecosystem. Judging by the reception that Google's chief executive received on Tuesday night during a keynote presentation at the Mobile World Congress here, the company may indeed be on to something.

Speaking to a standing room only crowd, Eric Schmidt gave the breathless audience a glimpse into what is next in the world of computing. Mr Schmidt listed three development areas that Google believes will be of particular importance in the mobile world. First, robust computing power. Today's hand-held devices have a level of computing power for which a gymnasium full of hardware would have been required 20 years ago, he said.

Second, the number of people connected to the internet. With more than 700 million mobile users around the world online, "we can literally know everything about anything if we want to", Mr Schmidt said. Third, and perhaps the most important, is "cloud" computing - the delivery of hosted services over the internet. The user of a remotely hosted service needs only a computer and an internet connection.

The cloud can be used to complete a number of tasks using voice recognition and language translation to search the Web, Mr Schmidt explained. As an example, a Google engineer demonstrated that a picture of a German-language menu taken with Google's Nexus One mobile phone could be sent to Google's servers for a translation to be returned to the phone in about 10 seconds. In the cloud computing demonstration, the menu item "Fruhlingssalat mit Wildkrautern" was translated as "spring salad with wild herbs".

"Imagine talking to someone in a different language and your mobile translating it back to you in real time," Mr Schmidt said. "We're not there yet, but we're close." It certainly beats spending years learning German. The big picture that Mr Schmidt neglected to explain is that putting Google into the hands of users worldwide through Google's own device or its Android operating system allows more people to see the online advertisements that the company carries.

Understandably, Google's rise in the mobile world has begun to draw the ire of telecommunications operators and rival makers of handsets. "The fact that 80 per cent of the advertising online goes down one funnel is something that should be looked at in the future debate on net neutrality," said Vittorio Colao, the chief executive of Vodafone, during a keynote speech on Monday at the congress. "I want to be clear: we use Google, we like Google. But it's more of a structural point; you can't develop a healthy data environment if you do not have healthy competition at all levels."

But it is hard to foresee any other company in the world developing a platform that will overtake Google's online advertising dominance. Yahoo and Microsoft may be making innovative strides in that field, but Google remains so far ahead that the only solution may be anti-trust regulators deciding to break the company apart. Still, it is indeed the cloud that helps put Google on a different playing field from its rivals, notably Apple. Although the iPhone has become a wildly popular device, selling about 44 million units, many developers and critics have lambasted the company's policy of confining applications to a rigid set of rules, a practice that they say hampers innovation.

Apple probably does not care. While it is not present at this year's Mobile World Congress, its influence is felt by every company represented here at the Fira de Barcelona conference facilities. Not surprisingly, Steve Jobs, the chief executive of Apple, did not show up to receive the Mobile Personality of the Year award at the Global Mobile Awards on Tuesday in Barcelona. Without Apple entering the mobile space three years ago, operators would not be witnessing soaring revenues from data services and the mobile application market would not be as robust as it is today.

Google's approach has been exactly opposite to Apple's. It has given away the source code for its Android operating system and it allows any developer to create any application without restriction. The result has been that more than 60,000 phones running on Android software are sold each day, Mr Schmidt proudly said. While he appeared to be sanguine about the company's mobile prospects, Google's embrace of the cloud appears to be a winning solution.

The company has spent untold billions of dollars building data centres around the world to provide the fastest search queries on the internet. By doing so, it has already built the infrastructure required for mobile devices to perform the complicated tasks Google wants to be possible in the future. With millions of people already using Google for searches on their personal computers, migrating to using the same services on mobile devices would be a natural progression. Although Apple paved the way for a touchscreen mobile world, Google has gone one step further and added enough features to make the internet more user-friendly than any iPhone application has done.

At the end of Tuesday's keynote session, as dozens of people digested Mr Schmidt's speech, two words were heard over and over in conversations - Google and Apple. The mobile world may eventually come to a fork in the road where the two companies are concerned. Judging by Tuesday's presentation and reactions to it, the fortunes to be earned from the mobile Web are Google's to lose.