Free Wi-Fi? What's Google Up To, Anyway?

Google appears to be trying to get into mobile and location-based search and advertising, a business it's been chipping away at for at least five years.
What's Next?

There are hints that Google applications or even platforms might follow. Google acquired Android earlier this year, bringing Danger founder Andy Rubin and engineers familiar with creating mobile phone operating systems.

Google has sidestepped this issue for now, as have other search engine companies and specialized operators, by supporting a wide range of browsers, particularly those that use the inadequate WAP (Wireless Application Protocol) found on most phones with smaller screens, but also part of advanced handsets like Verizon’s new LG VX9800.

In addition, Nishar said the company has created a separate directory of mobile-formatted content at the beta site or via an automatic redirect from, depending on the phone.

“We go out and crawl all the mobile sites that are out there -- there are hundreds of millions of them [pages] -- and create a special index,” he said. The company also reformats pages where possible to better work in the mobile format.

Google also provides a variety of access to its free, invitation-only email service Gmail, including redirecting specific incoming email to a mobile phone via SMS.

Being Bearish On Google

Analyst Albert Lin at San Francisco-based American Technology Research is bearish on Google’s current offerings for search and location-based information.

“The whole history and culture of Google has been tremendous success by finding ways to circumvent the establishment,” Lin said. In the mobile world, that’s practically impossible because the operators run closed systems.

Gary Price, a search-engine research expert and editor at Search Engine Watch, noted that while Google has a broad array of services, they’re just of many companies in the space. Yahoo, for instance, has a broad platform of mobile services.

Price believes that and other firms providing either answers to questions or deep, timely information -- such as Lexis-Nexis or medical information services like the National Library of Medicine -- have more impact than replicating Web results in a phone.

“Mobile lends itself to short bits of information, and I think in the area of questions and answers, that's a huge area there” to explore. For mobile users, “You want an answer; you don't want a bunch of links.”

It’s clear that Google’s focus on mobile goes beyond any particular device or service, and Wi-Fi will help them achieve that. With dozens of cities considering municipal wireless networks, Google’s San Francisco bid would let them experiment with services that they could offer to companies like EarthLink, the winner of the Philadelphia bid.

If services are done right -- from the user perspective and in turning revenue from them -- “they could have immense value to end users and to advertisers,” Google’s Sacca said. That, in turn, could feed the building of bigger Wi-Fi networks, Sacca said, since the revenue stream would be proven before the network was built.

Perhaps Google can have sidestep around limitations in making applications available via cellular operators through Wi-Fi zones and citywide networks that make Google applications widely available.

Google Talk, an instant messaging program in beta, includes voice over IP calling. A handset combining Wi-Fi and cellular with Google Talk built in or available to run could be the ultimate challenge to the existing mobile world while reducing calling costs for the road warrior.

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Cynthia Harvey, Freelance Journalist, InformationWeek