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Infrastructure // PC & Servers
12:37 PM
Michael Hickins
Michael Hickins

How Google Could Stymie Apple

Something few people could have foreseen is the impact that apps have on smartphone and feature phone sales; as the iPhone has demonstrated, apps really are the tail wagging the handheld dog.

Something few people could have foreseen is the impact that apps have on smartphone and feature phone sales; as the iPhone has demonstrated, apps really are the tail wagging the handheld dog.Not just here in the U.S., but everywhere it sells the iPhone, Apple has promoted the apps more than the device itself. Put aside the original adds demonstrating the touch-screen and the pinching effect and some ads for the 3G S, the focus of iPhone ads have been on apps.

Just as the iTunes App Store is credited with putting wind in the iPhone's sales, so correspondent market share losses by Nokia are blamed to a huge extent on the lameness of Ovi; the BlackBerry OS and Android are likewise acting as a drag on the fortunes of their respective devices, and Microsoft is scrambling to launch an app store of its own.

But what happens if Google developer evangelist Vic Gundotra's vision of the world is borne out and the entire Web becomes a device-agnostic app store of the future?

Many, many applications can be delivered through the browser and what that does for our costs is stunning… We believe the Web has won and over the next several years, the browser, for economic reasons almost, will become the platform that matters.

The advantage of creating apps for the Web rather than individual app stores is obvious: even mobile operating systems based on the Webkit (or HTML 5) standard are different enough to require separate development efforts, which would represent a significant investment for even established software vendors, let alone independent mobile app developers.

So most developers are currently following the path of least resistance - and for the time being, that's the iPhone, which makes it easy for customers to discover and pay for apps and handles back office functions on behalf of developers. (Apple has even suggested it's going to make it easier for customers to discover apps that don't get a lot of hype.)

Those three issues - discoverability, billing, and back-office functions - remain significant stumbling blocks to downloading apps from the Web to mobile devices. And developers certainly don't want to cut rapacious carriers (who take upwards of 25% of transaction fees) into the deal.

There is one other function proprietary app stores perform that browser-based downloads can't replicate. Proprietary app stores do provide a layer of security that should prevent users from inadvertently downloading a piece of malware that could paralyze their device. I'm not sure why, but the idea of a debilitating virus on my smartphone seems much more frightening than on my desktop or laptop.

But once those issues are ironed out (perhaps with the help of Google Checkout), there's no reason end-users wouldn't download apps from the Web to their smartphones - after all, we're used to doing it for our connected devices every day.

In Google's fantasy, all those downloads would happen through Google searches over a Chrome or Android browser. And where would that leave Apple? As other handset vendors have shown, hardware advances can provide a head start but no long-term barrier to competition.

The app store is Apple's ingenious way of bonding with its customers; deprived of that gift, it will be hard pressed to maintain its market share advantage over the likes of Nokia and Research in Motion.

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