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Android’s progress elevates Google’s mobile aspirations

16 февраля 2009

As Mobile World Congress begins, it is easy to forget how quickly Google has become part of the mobile story. At last year’s event, Google had only just unveiled Android, its open-source mobile operating system. The G1 phone was still just a rumour. The company had applications for mobile phones, but they were usually a cut-down version of the desktop PC program.

This year, the company will not just be at Mobile World Congress to showcase the G1 and promote Android. It now has a fully fledged application store – Android Market – to rival that of the iPhone, and is looking to create mobile applications that will become as ingrained on mobiles as desktop search is for PC users.

Android Market has far fewer applications – 800 – than the iPhone App Store’s 15,000, but Google doesn’t really mind. The company wants every phone to be a Google phone, regardless of platform, and is building its own applications to make that happen.

Ann Mei Chang, Google’s director of mobile engineering, says: “We want everything you can do on a desktop to be possible to do on a phone. But there are unique capabilities from being on a mobile. For example, our mobile voice search is not much use on a desktop, where you can type easily and no one really talks to their PC, but is great on a phone.”

In spite of the current economic downturn, there is still an industry shift under way from basic phones to higher-end phones as data devices. “Our focus is now on usage over units,” says Ms Chang. “There may be fewer smartphones on the market than lower-end phones, but their usage of mobile internet is higher by an order of magnitude – often up to 30 times higher.”

It may come as a surprise, but the main centre of mobile applications for Google is not in Mountain View. It is in London, at Google’s Victoria office.

Google’s UK headquarters has many of the same trademark features that the US Googleplex has – coloured beanbags, relaxation spaces, a funky cafeteria – and some more quintessentially British touches, such as red phone boxes. But the only clue that this is a centre for mobile development is the fact that many people seem to carry an excessive number of phones, often up to eight handsets.

Robert Hamilton, product management director for mobile at Google, is one of those carrying more phones than he has pockets, and explains how mobile applications are developed at Google: “It’s not about features, its about making it right. You can get into an arms race of more and more features for an application, but is that what people want? Often less is more.”

He is excited about voice search, an application for the iPhone. Typing out “pictures of the Golden Gate Bridge” or “weather in Copenhagen” is not that easy on a touchscreen, but the voice recognition software can deliver the results in seconds. It is one of the applications that Mr Hamilton is most proud of and which Google is looking to improve with support for more languages.

Google is aware that there are millions of people round the world without fixed-line internet access and who have not – yet – embraced Google as part of their daily lives. According to Wireless Intelligence, there are now 4bn mobile connections worldwide, compared with the 1.5bn internet users estimated by Internet World Stats. That is why Google is making big efforts in mobile.

While the emergence of smartphones and touchscreen mobiles in the past few years is a chance for Google to move search advertising revenue on to mobiles, it is also a chance for competitors. Nokia’s chief executive, Olli-Pekka Kallasvuo, has stated explicitly that the company wants to dominate mobile services. The Finnish company might have 40 per cent of the handset market, but the lesson of Microsoft looms large.

Microsoft failed to turn it’s dominance of PC operating systems and office software into a significant presence online, and Google took full advantage. For handset makers and mobile operators, the same forces are at work. Incumbent operators fear becoming a “bit pipe”, delivering other people’s products.

In the meantime, Ms Chang is watching the volume of mobile searches catching up quickly with desktop searches. At some point mobile will overtake, but she will not speculate as to when. “It depends on the country. In some places, some emerging markets, mobile has already outgrown desktop search. In other places such as the UK and US it will happen a lot later. But it will happen.”

Источник: Financial Times

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