Google Unplugged: gPhone Or Not, Google's Going Mobile

Google's apps are smartphone ready, it's partnering with cellular carriers, and the company may bid on wireless spectrum. Connect the dots.

Richard Martin, Contributor

September 28, 2007

7 Min Read

If Google develops its own smartphone--or should we say "when"?--IT departments will have to adjust to another wave of consumer technology showing up in the workplace, with or without their approval. This time, there's no excuse for getting caught unprepared. When it comes to mobile technology, Google's intentions are 90% clear. At the least, many on-the-go employees will be using Google software, so get ready.

Google has already developed a dozen smartphone applications, including mobile versions of its search, maps, Gmail, calendar, and RSS reader tools. Google software has been integrated with BlackBerrys, and the company has partnerships with cell carriers in the United States and abroad. There's a strong chance Google will participate in the FCC auction of 700-MHz spectrum. Connect the dots.

By all appearances, Google's just getting started. The company's searching for an executive to head its mobile business development in North America. The candidate, according to the job description, should have "a thorough understanding of the mobile vertical, both from a carrier and a handset OEM perspective."

Handset OEM perspective? That could be a reference to the rumored Google phone, reportedly to be designed in collaboration with Taiwanese handset maker HTC. Speculation has it that the phone would carry the Google brand and come with Google services and applications, perhaps running on a Google-developed mobile operating system.

Google isn't commenting, but the search giant's influence could hasten the transition to a more open mobile market, one in which service providers find it harder to tie customers to lopsided contracts, closed e-mail standards, and restricted Internet access. In an interview last week with InformationWeek, Dilip Venkatachari, a director of product management, spoke generally about Google's mobile strategy but declined to discuss future products and services. "The mobile ecosystem has multiple players, all of whom bring significant value," Venkatachari said. "The most important thing is for all of us to work together to improve the consumer experience."

For IT managers, "Google-to-go" holds promise and peril. Businesses can expect easier-to-deploy mobile applications, more choices in carrier offerings, and, possibly, lower prices for wireless services. Yet that disruption will make the process of choosing software and devices and managing them all more challenging than ever.


Google has been expanding its mobile software portfolio since 2005, when it acquired Android, a developer of mobile phone operating systems. Google's evasive about its plans for that technology, but the acquisition fueled predictions that Google will develop its own mobile OS, either for a Google phone or to run on handsets from other vendors. Any Google OS would be tightly integrated with the company's search, maps, Gmail, voice over IP, and other apps.

Google mobile ads--text-based, targeted ads that appear with search results on cell phones--debuted last year in Japan and quickly spread worldwide. In general, users have been receptive to display ads on mobile screens, defying analysts' predictions to the contrary. In September, Google extended its advertising platform to various forms of mobile content with AdSense for Mobile, software that aims ads at users based on the mobile content they're downloading.

Previously reluctant to involve itself in Beltway politics, Google this year waded into the FCC's planned auction of the last prime frequencies for advanced wireless services. CEO Eric Schmidt pledged $4.6 billion in bids--but with stipulations. Google wanted the auction winner to be required to build a network that lets any appropriate device connect and one that's open to other service providers. Google got the former but not the latter; Schmidt said last month the company would likely still bid in the auctions, perhaps as part of a consortium.

Google has done a good job of getting its software onto the most widely used business smartphone, Research In Motion's BlackBerry. Google Mobile Maps works with the BlackBerry's GPS capability, and RIM and Google have integrated Gmail with the BlackBerry, so received messages show up in a Gmail in-box on the device. Last week, Google Local Search was joined with BlackBerry Maps, so users can receive results based on their location. What's more, Google Talk IM is optimized for the BlackBerry and can be downloaded from RIM's site.


SEARCH Google search for the small screen

MAPS Gets mobile workers from point A to point B

DOCS & SPREADSHEETS Downsized documents

GMAIL A second in-box for businesspeople

CALENDAR Track appointments by cell phone

READER News in the palm of your hand

SIMS Includes set-and-save location feature

BLOGGER Post from the road

Google hasn't fared as well with Nokia, the world's No. 1 handset maker, which last month unveiled its own suite of mobile Web services, called Ovi.

Overseas carriers such as Vodafone in Europe, KDDI in Japan, and China Mobile have agreed to display Google applications and services on their handsets, while in the United States, Sprint Nextel and T-Mobile are listed as Google partners, though few details have been forthcoming. "We're working with a wide range of partners, including some of the U.S. carriers like Sprint, to develop a set of customer experiences that provide users with better access to search and more improved applications," Venkatachari said.

Of course, finding a way to make money off free content and services is Google's endgame--and something it already does very well. "We bring unrivaled scale in that business," said Venkatachari. "We do one thing and do it right: We serve the most relevant ads for the consumer in a particular situation."

Who stands to lose if Google succeeds? Microsoft, for one. Microsoft's Windows Mobile 6 operating system is expected to ship on 20 million devices this year. The last thing Microsoft wants to see is an exploding population of smartphone users abandon Office, which also runs on smartphones, for Google's free, untethered applications.

That's a real risk. Sea Change Management, a small financial services company, switched last year from Microsoft Office to Google Apps (though it still uses Excel where necessary). The company accesses Docs & Spreadsheets from PCs and smartphones "anywhere in the world," says managing principal Jason Winship. Employees collaborate using Gmail chat and shared documents.

Google's strategy may take another year or two to play out, which gives Microsoft some time to catch up to Google in the area where it's lacking--cheap and easy Web applications. The idiosyncrasies of the cellular market--including the conflicting agendas of handset manufacturers and cellular network operators, and network limitations--are deep rooted. "Handset nirvana," if that's what Google has in mind, will take time, says Yankee Group analyst John Jackson.


But don't underestimate Google's willingness to make bold moves--bid on spectrum, develop a mobile operating system, design a smartphone--that could shake up this inhibited market. "Google will gladly lose money on a phone to be involved in this market, if it means getting more eyeballs in front of their services," says analyst Carmi Levy at AR Communications.

Google mobile apps often make their way into enterprises from the bottom up. At Lafayette Federal Credit Union, some employees have begun using Google Maps on their BlackBerrys without oversight from the IT department. "They can download and use such resources as they see fit," VP of IT John Straub says by e-mail.

That's one way to do it, albeit potentially risky. IT departments may want to manage employee adoption of Google's mobile toolset, establishing policies for usage and security.

Just how IT administrators will actually manage Google's mobile software is another question. While Google Apps comes with basic management and update tools, the company hasn't put out a manage-ment console for its mobile applications, nor is it saying when one might become available. As Google goes mobile, the cellular industry, smartphone market, and customers are all flying with it--by the seat of their pants.

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